Monday, 12 October 2015


It's always a delight to receive the latest copy of CADS, which celebrated its 30th birthday not long ago. This is issue 71 of Geoff Bradley's "irregular magazine of comment and criticism about crime and detective fiction" and it's a very strong issue, with lots of good things. In all honesty, I should add that from my perspective one of them is a long and lovely review of The Golden Age of Murder by Doug Greene, one of the genre's great experts. I'm glad to say the book also attracts quite a bit of comment in the letters column. But part of the significance of the review is that Doug also contributed to the very first issue of CADS all those years ago, and this underlines the point that Geoff's work attracts a great deal of loyalty, such is its quality.

The issue begins brilliantly with an article by Tony Medawar about a collaborative project that, sadly, never saw the light of day. A diverse group of leading writers got together in 1975 to write a round-robin mystery, rather in the manner of The Floating Admiral, although not all the contributors were members of the Detection Club. Those who were included Harry Keating, Christianna Brand, Len Deighton and (improbably, you may think) Patricia Highsmith. The story was meant to be recorded on LP and cassette, but the full and final version failed to materialise. What a shame.

I've asked Len about this, and 40 years on, he has no memory of the project whatsoever. The memories of other contributors also seem to be lost. This is not unusual - I found when researching The Golden Age of Murder that people's memories are very fallible, and my experience as a lawyer interviewing witnesses taught me as much, many years ago. This makes me feel a bit better when my own memory proves fallible, as it often does. In reality, 'facts' are very often a matter of opinion or questionable recollection, and that's true even in the case of 'facts' recorded in apparently authoritative documents.

If there were a league table of the most notable researchers into the Golden Age, who battle constantly with such difficulties, I'd probably put Tony at the top of the list. His second article in the issue covers a hitherto unknown story by Anthony Berkeley. Quite a find. Barry Pike and John Cooper are leading experts on GA fiction of very long standing, and both contribute very interesting articles. John's tackles Fiona Sinclair, of whom I'd never even heard. She sounds well worth checking out.

There are many other good things too. Examples include Scott Herbertson's report on the Bodies in the Library conference, Mike Ripley's piece on Eric Ambler, and Kate Jackson's article about the Chinese detective Lily Wu, who was also new to me. Compared to the likes of Barry, John and  Tony, Kate is one of the new voices among young GA enthusiasts, and the quality of her writing and research suggests to me that she will become a leading figure among critics of the genre in years to come. Well, that's for the future, but in the meantime, if you like traditional crime fiction, CADS 71 is a must-buy.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Forgotten Book - The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face

The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face by Christopher St John Sprigg, first published in 1935,is a rare book by an author who has returned to public attention almost eighty years after his death in the Spanish Civil War. I've expressed my enthusiasm for his work on this blog more than once, and I'm gratified by the success of Death of an Airman, republished this year by the British Library. This particular novel displays once again his appealing sense of humour, although I do have reservations about the book as a whole.

The title is a good one, I think, although it is a long time before that particular corpse actually makes an appearance in the story, at a point where the plot complications are already coming thick and fast. I don't think I'm giving much away at all when I say that one minor but entertaining feature of the story is the use made of fake tan!

The first part of the book is set in one of those English villages beloved of Golden Age novels. Sprigg amuses himself at the start by having his vicat - of course the vicar plays a part in this kind of story, how could he not? - muse that "Nothing ever happens in Little Whippering". This is, naturally, the cue for all kinds of mayhem to take place. A mysterious and irascible stranger is the new tenant of "The Wilderness" and it soon becomes clear that there are dark secrets in his past. In due course, the body count starts to rise...

In the second part of the book, the actions shifts to an imaginary African country, where a policeman called Campbell pursues his investigation into a rather convoluted crime. One of the most interesting passages in the book comes when a senior British official says: "It's easy enough to call some deep-seated sentiment a superstition. Come to that, the British Empire s a superstition. There's only a group of independent nations acknowledging the imaginary domination of a hereditary Crown. Another superstition. There's no such thing as the British race, there's just a queer mingling of Normans, Gaels, Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Danes, and ancient Britons, with a good many French, Dutch, Italians, and Jews. Still another superstition! Yet these superstitions were real enough for men to die for them in millions during the war!"

I feel sure this passage represents the views of Sprigg, and I kept his views on race in mind when I considered his depiction of black people in the book. He was a progressive, yet there are snippets in the novel which, because of the language used, make for slightly uncomfortable reading nowadays.

More generally, I'm not convinced that the book works. I liked the witty lines, and there are plenty of them, and the plot has some neat twists, but it's rather rambling and - personally - I found it lacked grip in comparison to Death of an Airman. However, it illustrates Sprigg's praiseworthy fondness for trying to vary his approach, as well as his considerable writing skills..

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Unforgotten - ITV review

Unforgotten, the new ITV crime drama which began this evening, benefits from a superb cast and a decent script. And also, I think, from comparison with another new crime show, From Darkness, which started on BBC on Sunday. There are striking similarities between the openings of both stories - human remains are found by builders, and off we go into cold case territory. But overall, I felt that Unforgotten made the stronger start.

Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar are the detective duo who try to figure out the identity of the skeleton buried in concrete on the site of a building in London, and they make a good pair,likeable and professional and thankfully free of most of the cliches which bedevil so many telly cops. As their investigation moves along, we are also introduced to a host of assorted, and seemingly unconnected characters. An affable priest, a successful businessman, a caring bereaved mother, an elderly man with a wife suffering memory loss. What secrets might they share?

There's a clue to the underlying theme of Chris Lang's script when Walker muses on the question of whether a crime becomes less serious just because it took place a very long time ago. In these troubled times when historic sex abuse cases are so much discussed, it's a very thought-provoking question. I felt that the story was intriguing, without (so far) matching the brilliance of the first episode of Broadchurch or the early series of Taggart. As for the actors - Trevor Eve, Hannah Gorden, Tom Courtenay, Claire Goose, Bernard Hill, and so on - it would be a pleasure to watch them in almost anything.

By contrast, I felt that From Darkness moved too slowly. Katie Baxendale's script had several good moments but it also indulged in quite a lot of time-wasting moodiness that failed to advance the story and didn't even offer much insight into character. It did, however, warm up rather nicely towards the end. I'll gladly give it another look, but given that life is short, the early evidence suggests that if you have to choose between one show or the other, Unforgotten is likely to prove more compelling.  

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Anthea Fraser and A Tangled Thread

It's strange but true that, despite having posted more than 2000 pieces on this blog since its inception, there are still a good many authors of note whom I have yet to cover. The number includes quite a few authors with whom I've been friendly for a long time,and someone who comes into that category is Anthea Fraser. 

Anthea was already a very well-established author when I first met her and her late husband at a CWA conference many years ago. I read quite a number of her books featuring DCI Webb- twelve of the titles in the series had titles with a shared link, all taken from "Green Grow the Rushes-O". It's a series that I can heartily recommend. She's also written a wide variety of other books, and the publication by Severn House of her latest, A Tangled Thread, prompted me to invite her to contribute a guest post. I'm glad to say that she accepted, and here is what Anthea has to say - I was particularly interested to learn of her map-drawing approach to her craft, which I wasn't previously aware of:

"My mother was a published novelist and I’ve been writing virtually all my life. My first novels were on paranormal themes with a crime element in them, and I then turned to straight crime with sixteen books featuring DCI Dave Webb. I’m now working on the tenth about Rona Parish, a biographer and freelance journalist. What I enjoy about a series is that the settings and characters are ready waiting for you when you embark on a new book – like walking into a strange room and seeing people you know.

I also enjoy the freedom of stand-alones involving characters whose story will be completed within the covers of one book, and tend to write them alternately with the series. My latest novel, A Tangled Thread, is an example, where three separate stories are gradually and unexpectedly brought together. Families fascinate me and the tensions between them – the loves, hates, jealousies, rivalries and ultimate loyalties – are, I find, perfect ingredients for a crime story.

Before I start to write, I draw detailed maps and plans of my locations, and sometimes tear out illustrations of interiors from magazines to use as rooms in the main house in the book. By describing houses and streets in some detail, I hope to make readers feel as at home in the environs of the book as I do."

I’m lucky enough to have very vivid dreams which I’m able to remember when I wake, and in fact dreamed the plot of at least one novel and several short stories, which was very useful!

Monday, 5 October 2015

Silent Nights - selling like hot cakes!

I'm delighted to say that my third anthology of Golden Age crime fiction, Silent Nights, has just been published by the British Library in its Crime Classics series. And I'm absolutely thrilled to say that, even before publication, the first print run had sold out, and there was a large scale reprint making the book - already - the most commercially successful of the many anthologies that I've edited.

The book is a collection of Christmas mysteries, and of course our hope is that, like Mystery in White last year, this book will become a popular stocking-filler. From my point of view, it is fascinating to see that the British Library has, in the course of this year, successfully challenged the received wisdom of the publishing world that "short story collections don't sell". The danger of taking such a view is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You would not, perhaps, believe how difficult I've found it at times to interest publishers in contemporary anthologies with a range of stellar authors contributing quite splendid original stories. But  I am sure that many readers love short stories just as much as I do, and I'm enormously grateful that the British Library phenomenon has proved that it is perfectly possible to enthuse a large number of readers about an anthology.

Is this just a Christmas-present buying phenomenon? The answer is an emphatic no, because Capital Crimes and Resorting to Murder have been selling exceptionally well throughout the summer, and now into the autumn. I've had a huge amount of very positive feedback about both collections, and I hope that Silent Nights will also offer a bit of something for everyone who likes an engaging crime story with a seasonal flavouring.

As usual, I've tried to blend major authors, and stories that have been anthologised before, with some mysteries that will be unfamiliar to almost everyone. One story in particular stands out in my mind. It's a very obscure story called "Parlour Tricks" by the equally obscure Ralph Plummer. About a year ago, Bob Adey drew it to my attention, sending me a copy from his own amazing collection. He and I had been discussing holiday mysteries in the context of my research for Resorting to Murder, but the story gave me the idea for a Yuletide anthology. Sadly, Bob died before he could see the book, but I like to think that he would have enjoyed it.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Forgotten Book - Evil Eye

One of the mysteries of crime fiction is why, even today, so few of the crime novels of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac have been translated into English. This was the duo who gave us Vertigo and Les Diaboliques, yet even when they were in their prime,in the Fifties, a good many of their collaborative novels went untranslated. And try laying your hands on an English language version of their earlier solo efforts...All very odd, for they were marvellous writers. I've featured their work several times on this blog, and today's Forgotten Book is Evil Eye, which Geoffrey Saintsbury translated in 1959.

It's a short novel, and the British hardback edition was bulked out by the inclusion of a novella called Sleeping Beauty, which I'll write about on another occasion (the UK paperback edition did not, I believe,include Sleeping Beauty for some reason.) The hardback is very difficult to find these days. When John Norris reviewed the book on his blog four years ago,(and an excellent and very enthusiastic review it was) I commented that I was keen to track down a copy myself. But I've only just managed to find one.

Was the book worth the wait? Yes, definitely. Boileau and Narcejac never repeated themselves, and yet somehow The Evil Eye is very characteristic of their work - one can't imagine it being written by anyone else. Their stories invariably have a touch of weirdness, and the plot is often so improbable that,in the hands of a less gifted writer, the result would be hopeless. But their work is always very readable.

Here, we have a young man, Remy, who is suddenly cured of his long-term paralysis by a healer. Once Remy can walk again and becomes independent, he becomes increasingly concerned by events in the past, which may in some way have caused the paralysis. The mood is menacing, and yet the reader can't be sure what is going on. The hallucinatory style of Boileau and Narcejac is very well captured in the translation. This isn't my favourite of their work - it's too slight, really, for that -, but it held my interest from start to finish.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Inspirations for The Dungeon House

I said yesterday that I found the west Cumbrian setting of my latest Lake District Mystery, The Dungeon House, to be quite inspiring. Not just the tiny Roman port of Ravenglass, but the dunes and lonely beaches of Drigg, and the coastal resort of Seascale,which lies in the shadow of a massive nuclear plant. I enjoyed so much the experience of wandering around that area, and trying to see it through the eyes of my characters.

There were other inspirations for the storyline. Some time ago, I became fascinated by a terrible type of criminal, the so-called "family annihilator" who kills members of his family and then himself. I found myself wondering what could lead anyone to do something so dreadful that it is almost beyond comprehension. I didn't take any particular real life case as my starting point, but the general (and, sad to say, increasing) trend of family annihilation cases. But it's not giving too much away to say that the story evolves into something different - there's a reasonably convoluted whodunit plot, with a number of clues planted where I hope not many readers will be looking...

Two residents of Ravenglass, Neil Anderson and Mark A. Pearce, kindly gave me a good deal of insight into the lives that might be led by two of my invented characters, and this was a huge help. Mark is an artist, as is Scott Durham in the story, but he's a much finer artist than Scott! I have become a big fan of his, and one of his wonderful works of art - its subject Ravenglass, what else? - now adorns the living room chez Edwards. One of the many unexpected bonuses of life as a crime writer.

But sometimes inspiration takes a curious form. The original idea came to me after I paid a visit to an Arts and Crafts house in Cheshire, a couple of years ago. It boasted a wonderful quarry garden, and I felt as soon as I saw it that it would make a wonderfully evocative setting for murder most foul. And two years on, I'm still of the same opinion. Here's hoping that readers agree...


Monday, 28 September 2015

The Dungeon House

The Dungeon House is the seventh Lake District Mystery, and it has just been published in the UK, by Allison & Busby, and in the US, by Poisoned Pen. As usual with my series novels, I've tried to do something fresh while striving to retain the elements that have appealed to readers of the earlier books. And whilst it's tricky for an author to judge their own work, my feeling is that this is my favouiite in the series to date. This is the first novel I've written since ceasing to be a full-time lawyer, and I think the extra time spent crafting the story was beneficial.

Another key factor, perhaps even more crucial, is that I found the location of the story absolutely inspiring. I've mentioned previously the research that I've undertaken in Ravenglass, and other parts of the west coast of Cumbria. By comparison with other parts of the Lake District, this is a relatively unfrequented area, yet it's rich in history and dramatic landscapes abound.

The first four chapters are set twenty years in the past. A man called Malcolm Whiteley (yet another character who owes his surname to a Derbyshire cricketer!) has made a fortune out of selling his business, and lives in the elegant Dungeon House, just above Ravenglass. But he suspects his wife Lysette (I created her after watching a stage play featuring Lysette Anthony, whose physical appearance helped me to get an image of the character clear in my mind) of having an affair. But is there really a mystery lover, or is it all in Malcolm's troubled mind?

A shocking crime is committed, and immediately the action switches to the present day. Hannah Scarlett and her team are investigating the disappearance, three years earlier, of a teenage girl. Then another girl goes missing, and it emerges that both cases have a curious link to events at the Dungeon House all those years ago. Meanwhile, a woman who was friendly with Malcolm Whiteley's daughter decides to return to Ravenglass, setting in motion a sequence of mysterious incidents. What on earth is going on? To find out, of course, you'll have to read the book!

Friday, 25 September 2015

Forgotten Book - The Man Who Killed Himself

Starting in 1967, Julian Symons wrote three books with title beginning "The Man Who..." The first two, certainly, rank among his finest work, and it's no coincidence that when the Detection Club marked his 80th birthday with a collection of short stories in his honour, it was called The Man Who.., and each story had a title containing that phrase. The three books were not a trilogy, and are entirely distinct from each other. There are no common characters, although a strong sense of irony, and a sharp sense of humour, are common features.

The Man Who Killed Himself was the first of the three novels, and it features meek, unhappily married Arthur Brownjohn, a character who closely resembles Dr Bickleigh in Francis Iles' Malice Aforethought. This is not the only parallel between the two stories, and I've no doubt that Symons was consciously trying to take elements from the work of Iles (whom he admired, as I do) and fashion them into a contemporary mystery. He does so with great success. This is quite a short book, but it's genuinely gripping.

Arthur is leading a double life. He finds an outlet for the more, shall we say, outgoing aspects of his character by creating Major Easonby Mellon, a dodgy chap who runs a very dodgy matrimonial bureau. Mellon is married to a nice but unintelligent woman whom he has persuaded that he is actually a secret agent. The early scenes are very funny, but then the plot thickens - and it becomes progressively darker. Arthur, like the other 'Men Who...' is essentially a weak man, whose personality flaws make him a potential murderer.

Ultimately, this book is a study of a man's psychological disintegration. Symons had tackled this subject before, notably in The 31st of February, his first significant crime novel, and he would revisit it subsequently, but never with such zest as in this book. The combination of a clever plot and ironic prose is a real delight. I recommend it unreservedly.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Agatha Christie Festival

I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in last week's Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay. The festival has been running for some years, but it was my first time in attendance, and it was good to be back on "the English Riviera". The last time I stayed at the Grand Hotel was at the time of the Christie Centenary in 1990, a very memorable week-end. At that point, I'd never published a single novel or short story. So it was a particular pleasure to return for the 125th anniversary of Agatha's birth as a fully-fledged crime novelist.

My first talk was in the Spanish Barn (photo immediately above) at Torre Abbey (photo at the top of this post), an atmospheric and historic setting, and I was gratified that the organisers had gathered an excellent crowd. I was introduced by David Brawn, my editor at Harper Collins, and my subject was The Golden Age of Murder. I didn't talk to a script, but after working on the book for so many years,I felt I would have more than enough to say without one! Some very interesting questions prompted a lively discussion, and I met several delightful people for the fist time.

In the afternoon, it was time to head off to the Imperial Hotel (said to be the model for the hotel in Peril at End House.) This time I was doing a double act with Rob Davies, from the publications department of the British Library. Rob is series editor for the BL's crime classics, and we talked about titles in this remarkably successful series (370,000 paperbacks sold so far!) as well as future plans. In a nutshell, we have titles lined up until the end of 2017. It seems like a long way ahead, but even then, the books will be appearing at a rate of more than one a month. Quite a schedule.

Rob and I both enjoyed the session, and we are hoping to repeat it at future festivals and other literary events in the future. One interesting aspect at Torquay was that the audience included some heirs of literary estates,and it was great to talk to them. Unexpectedly, Andrew Wilson, whose biography of Patricia Highsmith I reviewed here quite recently, came and said hello. We hadn't met before and I didn't know he lives in Devon. Andrew tells me he's written a new crime novel, which should be well worth looking out for. After two talks, I was more than ready for a convivial dinner with the British Library team, followed by a drink back in the Grand.

Then, the following morning, after goodbyes at Torre Abbey, it was off to Winchester, where I was talking about The Golden Age of Murder at Winchester Discovery Centre, a fabulous venue. Winchester is a lovely and, of course, very historic city, where the library is a proper community hub, and the schedule of events at the adjoining Discovery Centre is impressive. A model for libraries and associated services in the 21st century, I felt. This time, I was being interviewed by Gilbert Yates of the Discovery Centre, and the question and answer format made a refreshing change from a conventional talk. Next morning I satisfied my inner tourist with a sight-seeing trip around the city,and then it was off home after what had been, to say the least, an eventful week. One of many gratifying aspects of the trip was the enthusiasm shown by so many people for The Golden Age of Murder. I signed a lot of copies,and I remain bowled over by reaction to the book from so many people.