Monday, 16 October 2017

Midnight Fear - 1990 film review

Midnight Fear is a not very well-known American film that was recently screened on the Talking Pictures TV channel. It's not an old black and white movie, but a film that, in 1990, clearly had aspirations to be cutting-edge. In more ways than one - it's a violent, and at time disturbing thriller about a crazed killer. It's not a masterpiece, but it has some unusual aspects, and it kept me interested.

Early on, it seems as if the story will follow a predictable path. A young couple seem to be building their relationship on a lonely ranch, while a woman is savagely murdered in the same area. David Carradine rolls up to the crime scene: he's an ace detective, but he's also hopelessly drunk. He becomes fascinated by the case, and determines to investigate, even though he's moved to other duties after making a fool of himself on television.

Meanwhile, a couple of nasty-seeming characters are on the loose. They are two brothers - one has just been released from a mental hospital, and is deaf, the other is his brother. They find themselves at the ranch and start to take an unhealthy interest in the young woman who lives there. She's played by August West, an actor about whom I know nothing. Her career seems to have faded, which is a great shame, since I thought she was excellent.

Carradine, as charasmatic and troubled in this film as evidently he was in real life, soon finds himself on the trail of the two brothers. It seems that the deaf chap murdered the girl, and one presumes that there will be a race against time culminating in his trying and failing to murder August West's character, before Carradine ultimately prevails. In fact, the plot veers off in a different direction. As I say, it's a disturbing film, with a number of striking plot twists, and it does not deserve to be consigned to oblivion.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Forgotten Book - Fear to Tread

Fear to Tread is one of Michael Gilbert's early books, dating from 1953, and isn't especially well-known. It's a thriller, rather than a detective story or a police novel, although Gilbert's series police detective Hazlerigg plays a small part in the story. But that's typical Gilbert: he focused on storytelling rather than writing series. Here, the hero is a headmaster called Mr Wetherall, whose hatred of bullying leads him into danger.

I first read the novel at the back end of the 60s, when I first discovered Gilbert. I have to confess that it didn't make as great an impression on me as much of his other work. Part of the reason for that is that much of the book's appeal lies in its depiction of shabby post-war London, and at that time, I didn't know London at all. Another explanation is that Gilbert was writing an authentic, and fairly realistic novel about crime and corruption. He even includes an extract from a newspaper report of 1953 to emphasise the topicality of his story. But writing topical crime fiction is a risky business.

It's risky because it dates quickly, and less than twenty years after the book was published, it didn't seem - at least to my younger self- to be in the least topical. Life had moved on. In many ways, the mood of this story is in tune with the post-war black and white films often to be found on the Talking Pictures TV channel. In the 21st century, on the other hand, the book has added value as a sort of social document.

Mr Wetherall stumbles across a glorified black market racket, and finds him up against some very ruthless criminals. Gilbert shows how a decent, relatively ordinary man can find himself threatened, and find himself drawing upon unsuspected reserves of courage. (Some of his later books are in a similar vein - an outstanding example is The Crack in the Teacup, one of my favourites). I liked this book better the second time around. It's not one of his finest books, but now I can admire the smoothness of Gilbert's storytelling. He made it look so easy. .

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard - film review

I never met the late Nigel Morland, but I was in touch with him briefly prior to his death in 1986. He edited a magazine called Current Crime, which coincidentally is discussed in the latest issue of CADS. I was keen to lay my hands on copies, but although he supplied some to me, he was clearly struggling to cope with things at that point, when he must have been about 80. But he had a long and rather interesting career in crime fiction.

His real name, it seems, was Carl Van Biene, and after a spell in journalism as a teenager, he worked for a short time as Edgar Wallace's secretary. in his debut novel, The Phantom Gunman, published when he was 30, he introduced Mrs Palymyra Pym. Although he wrote under a host of pen-names, and produced a long list of books over the next four decades, Mrs Pym remained his best-known character. In 1953, he became a founder member of the CWA.

Mrs Pym made it into the movies in 1939, when Morland wrote the screenplay for Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard. This film was thought for a long time to have been lost, but it resurfaced a while ago, and I've now caught up with it on Talking Pictures. And I'm glad I did. It's decent entertainment for its period, and there's a lot of pleasure to be taken in the chauvinistic reaction of the male establishment to the arrival in a murder investigation of a female cop, Mrs Pym. What would Cressida Dick make of it, I wonder?

The story concerns the mysterious deaths of two women, who just happen to have bequeathed substantial sums to a psychical research society. A young newspaper reporter (Nigel Patrick) is sceptical about the psychics, and Mrs Pym (played with gusto by Mary Clare) suspects dark deeds. The mystery is nicely done, and I enjoyed watching it. I'm not suggesting that Morland was a great writer - I suspect he was essentially a journeyman, but there's no shame whatever in that. I get the impression of a hard-working professional who came up with a very good idea, a detective character who really was ahead of her time.  ,

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Night Visitor - film review

Even before Scandi-noir was a thing, there was The Night Visitor. A film from 1971 with a very chilly feel. If you are in the mood for cheery entertainment, be warned. This film is'n't for you. It's all about madness and murder, and Bergman's muse Liv Ullmann is in the cast. The film's alternative title is Lunatic, and there are enough shots of snowy landscapes to chill you to the marrow. And yet - it's also a sort of locked room mystery. A locked prison cell, in fact.

One winter night, an inmate called Salem (played by Max von Sydow with even more than his customary gloom) escapes from an asylum. He heads for a lonely house, where his family are bickering. Two years ago he was convicted of a murder. But was he guilty, or was the perpetrator really his brother-in-law (Per Oscarsson),? This chap is a doctor, and decidedly creepy. He's married to Liv, and they have a fractious relationship with Liv's sister.

Murder is done. The doctor sees Salem, but when the police become involved - in the extremely unlikely form of Trevor Howard - there is no evidence that Salem ever got out of the asylum. He's back in his locked cell, and there seems to have been no way that he could have got out. The detective is perplexed, and Salem continues to carry out a diabolical plan before all is finally revealed.

I found this an intriguing film, but it's also rather strange. There are some odd casting choices - not just Trevor Howard, but Rupert Davies, Arthur Hewlett, and Gretchen (EastEnders) Franklin feature in rather unlikely roles. And the music is written by Henry Mancini, though the film and soundtrack are a world away from both The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Overall, worth watching, but very slow.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Forgotten Book - The Bornless Keeper

I can remember looking at a copy of The Bornless Keeper in my local library at Northwich, not long after it was first published in 1974. The storyline on the dust jacket seemed quite interesting, but veering more towards the horror genre than crime. I didn't borrow it, and I've only recently, after all these years, come into possession of a copy.

One thing that intrigued me was that the jacket said that the Yuill name was "a pseudonym. The author does not want his real identity disclosed." A little later, Yuill produced a series of three very different books about a private eye called James Hazell. I did read those, and very entertaining they were. What's more, they were adapted for television ,with Nicholas Ball playing Hazell. And the authors were revealed to be Gordon Williams and the former footballer (who also became England football manager) Terry Venables.

The Bornless Keeper, however, was written by Williams on his own. And the copy I've acquired actually bears his signature. Williams is an unsung figure in the annals of crime fiction, and I've only just discovered that he died recently, in August. He received very respectful obituaries, but perhaps less attention than you might expect given that one of his novels was shortlisted for the very first Booker Prize. His output of fact and fiction was extremely varied - he ventured into science fiction at one point and apparently also wrote pseudonymous thrillers - and he scripted the TV version of Ruth Rendell's Tree of Hands. But he said he'd become bored with writing novels.

At his peak, though, he was a fine novelist. He was a Scot, but for a while he and his wife lived in rural Devon, and while there he wrote a novel set in the area, The Siege at Trencher's Farm, famously turned by Sam Peckinpah into the violent and controversial  Straw Dogs. Peacock Island, the setting for The Bornless Keeper, was evidently based on Brownsea Island. Williams writes evocatively about place, and numerous small touches reveal that this is an author of considerable distinction.

A weird creature seems to be running amok on the island, prompting locals on the mainland to recall the legend of the mysterious Bornless Keeper. For years, one wealthy woman has lived on the island as a recluse. But now the place seems to have been taken over by a grotesque beast with homicidal tendencies. Despite the horrific and supernatural trappings, this is indeed a crime novel, and the depiction of tensions between the investigating police officers is one of its strengths. The jacket blurb suggests that Yuill was contemplating more books, and it may be that this was meant to be the start of a series, before he decided to collaborate with Venables on the Hazell stories instead.

The inquiry is complicated by the intervention of a TV crew, who want to make a film set on the island. I didn't find their activities quite so compelling, and you don't have to be excessively sensitive to find the presentation of the female lead character unpleasant. It's a reminder that attitudes in the Seventies were very different from those prevailing today. The Bornless Keeper is an odd book, not quite like anything I've read, and far less conventional than the Hazell trilogy. But it's certainly readable, and Williams' work in the genre does not deserve the neglect into which it has fallen.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Foreign Bodies - a new British Library anthology

Over the past twenty-plus years, I've had the pleasure of compiling and editing a great many anthologies of crime writing. This year sees the publication of no fewer than five of my anthologies - four from the British Library, and the CWA collection Mystery Tour, due later in the year. But of all the anthologies I've been associated with, Foreign Bodies is one of the most exciting. And after a great deal of work behind the scenes, it finally hits the shelves tomorrow.

Classic crime fiction is usually associated in the public mind with stories written in the English language. Christie, Sayers and company in Britain, of course, and their American counterparts, the likes of Ellery Queen and C. Daly King. Few people realise how many detective stories were written in other languages at much the same time. And not only those by Georges Simenon, either.

The appeal of the detective story is worldwide,and that has long been the case. Sherlock Holmes inspired a host of writers to flatter Conan Doyle by imitation. Maurice Leblanc's stories about Arsene Lupin (which feature "Holmlock Shears",among other characters!) are quite well-known, the tales by the German Paul Rosenhayn about an American sleuth in the Holmes mould are long-forgotten. And even writers in Asia and South America were taking note of what Doyle and his successors were doing in Britain, and seeking to follow their example.

There are a number of reasons why compiling Foreign Bodies has proved quite a challenge. For a start, it's far from easy to track down some of the stories in their original forms. Acquiring the rights has sometimes been far from easy - we missed out on one intriguing "impossible crime" story aa a result of rights problems, for example - and getting the translations sorted out with a satisfying period feel has been another hurdle. Thankfully, I and the British Library have benefited from a great deal of help, in particular from John Pugmire of Locked Room International and American short story writer and translator Josh Pachter. I hope that readers find the result of our labours as fascinating to read as I have found it to put together.

Monday, 2 October 2017


The arrival of a new issue of CADS is always a cause for celebration. Geoff Bradley's "irregular magazine of comment and criticism about crime and detective fiction" has now reached issue 76. That very irregularity is one of the pleasures of CADS - one never quite knows when the next issue will arrive, a touch of quirkiness that I find very attractive.

It comes as quite a shock to me to realise that I've known Geoff for 27 years. We first met at a memorable Bouchercon in London in 1990. I'd read that there was to be a quiz about crime fiction, so I expressed an interest. What I hadn't realised was that it was to be closely modelled on BBC TV's Mastermind, and when I said that my special interest was "detectives", that meant the questions in the special round ranged far and wide. Geoff kept score, and Maxim Jakubowski set the questions. I'd never met Maxim until then either - now he is one of the CWA's two Vice Chairs and I am the Chair. Who would have predicted that? Not me.

One oft the other three contestants (the others were Sarah J. Mason, a writer with whom I'm still in touch, and Jim Huang from the States) was Tony Medawar. Tony is someone else I'd never met before that day. Since then, I think I've learned more from his researches than from the research of any other Golden Age fan, with the possible exceptions of John Curran and Barry Pike. In CADS 76, Tony is at it again, with a terrific article about "the lost cases of Lord Peter Wimsey". For any Sayers fan, that is a must-read.

As usual, there is plenty of other good stuff. Pete Johnson writes about Andrew Garve, and Barry Pike about Reggie Fortune, while Kate Jackson, who has emerged in recent times as a prolific and interesting blogger, contributes a thoughtful article about mystery fiction and individualism. Liz Gilbey and John Cooper are among a range of other knowledgeable contributors, and I was especially pleased to read John's discussion of the books of Kay Mitchell. Kay's an old friend of mine who has not published a book, sadly, for a very long time, but her work is definitely worth seeking out. I have to confess that three books of mine are reviewed in this issue, but I can promise you that isn't why I recommend this magazine. Over the years, CADS has made a contribution to research about the genre that is both unique and invaluable.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Forgotten Book - The Box Office Murders

The Box Office Murders and The Purple Sickle Murders were the original British and American titles of a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts which has now been reprinted as Inspector French and the Box Office Murders. It was first published in 1929, and although it's a murder mystery, it's not a typical Golden Age whodunit but rather a lively thriller set mainly in London.

Inspector French is consulted by a young woman called Thurza Darke (great name!) who works as a clerk in a box office. She has got herself into a tricky situation with an unscrupulous bunch of people, and seeks his guidance. He is impressed by her manner, and arranges to meet her at the National Gallery, but she doesn't turn up. Unfortunately, her body is soon found, and it appears that someone has drowned her.

French, I thought, was rather remiss in not having the girl watched for her own protection, but clearly the police did things differently in those days. I was surprised when French later indulges in burglary of a suspect's premises, and even more startled when he not only breaks in somewhere else, but enlists the support of a subordinate and the subordinate's young son in so dong. Blimey!

But these quibbles don't matter, and I enjoyed the story. It's quite fast-moving, and Crofts cleverly obscures the reality of the criminal scheme of the gang of murderers responsible for killing several young women who worked as box office clerks. Not an orthodox police procedural, by any means, but a very welcome reprint, not least because it illustrates that Crofts was a more versatile writer than he has often been given credit for. His literary style may have been plain, but I must say that the more of his work I read, the more I appreciate his considerable skills as a plotsmith.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

One and a half million...

While I was sunning myself in north Italy and Switzerland last week, relishing the charms of places like Lugano (above), and Bergamo, (below) I had the chance to reflect on how much has happened to me since I began this blog almost ten years ago. It's been an extraordinary period in my life, with the most difficult experiences (above all, the death of my mother) and much good luck. I've spent quality time with some wonderful people, and visited some fantastic places. Even as I appreciated the scenery while travelling from St Moritz to Tirano on the Bernina Experess, I found myself reflecting on the strange quirks of life. There have been plenty of those over the past decade,and more than ever before I am convinced that one simply has to make the most of the good times while one can. So, for instance, on visiting Bergamo, I decided I really had to write a story set there. And before I left that day, I'd mapped it out in my mind.

For me, making the most of things means, for example, writing the short stories and books that I believe in,rather than those I think might stand the best chance of selling in big numbers. Oddly enough, I always assumed The Golden Age of Murder would be a niche project, either produced by a small press or self-published. I still can't really get over the fact that Harper Collins took it on, and that it not only sold very well but also won four awards and was shortlisted for two others. My association with the British Library, hugely positive, also came out of the blue. It's a funny old world.

Strange as it may seem, writing this blog has never felt like hard work. More like a chat with one or two friends. That's probably why I've now written more than 2500 blog posts (blimey!) since I started out. And a couple of days ago, the blog passed the landmark of 1.5 million visits. Something else I never expected.

In my first post, I said: The aim is to share my enthusiasm for crime fiction, and the craft of writing. From childhood, I dreamed of becoming a crime novelist - and I love being part of a fascinating world. I’m not only a writer, but a fan, and I’ll have lots to say about lots of terrific and often overlooked books and films, past and present. As for my own writing life, I’ll share the frustrations - and also the pleasures. If this blog encourages any would-be writers among you to keep at it, I’ll be delighted. 

When I wrote those words, I'd never won a literary award (though I'd been a published crime novelist since 1991) and I certainly never dreamed I would become Chair of the CWA, or President of the Detection Club, let alone both. So - very fortunate indeed. I'd like to think that others can draw at least some encouragement from what I've said about my experiences on this blog. You just never know what the future may bring. And even if things don't always go well, there's always the hope that something new and good and unexpected lurks just around the corner.  

Monday, 25 September 2017

In the footsteps of Hemingway and Hesse...

I'm just back from a delightful week in north Italy and Switzerland which gave me the chance to explore Italy's very own Lake District. Quite different from the stamping ground of Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind (not least in the absence of rain!) but equally attractive. And although the English Lakes are perhaps more closely associated in the public mind with literary giants, the Italian lakes have their fair share of notable literary connections.

Our base was Moltrasio, a pleasant village on the west shore of Lake Como, not too far from the Swiss border. Across the lake, just a five minute boat ride away, is Torno, an even more picturesque place which caught the fancy of Herman Hesse when he visited the area just before the First World War. There's something quite magical about the little harbour and surrounding piazza. Thanks to a good (and cheap) day ticket system, I took a look at quite a few places on the shore of the lake, and each has its own distinct personality and charm. Como itself is an interesting city and a funicular railway takes one all the way up to Brunate, high above the waterline.

Another lake on the itinerary was Lake Maggiore, and the town of Stresa. Ernest Hemingway convalesced there after being wounded during the First World War. He stayed in the magnificent Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, which he revisited many years later. His experiences in Italy provide some of the background material for A Farewell to Arms, a book I read as a schoolboy, and which still lingers in my memory. I've not read many of his other novels; that's the one that impressed me particularly.

One of the pleasures of Stresa is that you can take a boat to the lake's fascinating islands. I found Isola Bella absolutely stunning. The gardens and the palazzo are equally magnificent. A short hop away is "Fisherman's Island", a small but bustling place crammed with bars and restaurants. Hemingway, like Hesse, knew a great place when he saw one.