Friday, 31 July 2015

Forgotten Book - Earth to Ashes

Alan Brock is undoubtedly a forgotten writer, but I enjoyed Further Evidence, which I covered on this blog a little while ago, and duly encouraged, I tried his 1939 novel Earth to Ashes. I wasn't disappointed. It's a very readable story indeed, and it has the added bonus of being based on a true crime that interests me greatly (although Brock is careful to include a prefatory note making it clear that there are many differences between his story and the actual case.)

An affable and charming man called Brooks befriends the attractive Maude Ashe, only to learn that she is married, albeit to an invalid. The Ashes aren't poverty-stricken by any means, but a little extra money never does any harm, and soon they take in Brooks as a lodger. Brooks pursues his interest in Maude, and although she resists his overtures, she does so in such a way as to give him a degree of encouragement. So he persists, and their relationship develops.

The story switches gear when it becomes apparent that Brooks is not all it seems. Soon the reader with an interest in murder cases of the past will recognise similarities between his behaviour and that of A.A. Rouse, who in 1930 was tried in connection with the notorious "Blazing Car Murder". As it happens, I wrote about that very case recently in Truly Criminal. It has long fascinated me, and elements of the case have featured in stories by authors as notable as Dorothy L. Sayers, J. J. Connington, and Milward Kennedy.

Brock does a good job of maintaining interest, even when he switches focus from the behaviour of Brooks to the investigation carried out by the police. His depiction of the relationship between a clever young constable and his less than brilliant boss is entertaining, and his variations on the Rouse case theme are pleasing. I'm rather surprised that Brock has been ignored for so long. His books aren't easy to find, but I'm on the look-out for another. This is definitely a good one.


Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Harrogate - and a question

Other commitments have meant that I'm reporting on the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate ten days after it came to an end. But it was a really enjoyable week-end, and it's prompted me to ask readers of this blog a question.

The programming chair for the Festival was Ann Cleeves, and she is such an efficient person that it was predictable that the whole week-end would be very well organised. And it was. Ann would be the first to give much credit to the very professional team that handles all the arrangements. It all seemed to me to run like clockwork. As usual, there was much socialising in the bar and elsewhere, and I took the opportunity to have a number of meetings, not least with my agent, with whom I was discussing my future writing plans. The good news is that he is happy with them!

I enjoyed the hospitality of Harper Collins at a dinner on the Friday evening, and met a number of fascinating people, including a new author, Ben McPherson; I sense that his debut novel will be well worth looking out for. Later on, Ann introduced me to Brenda Blethyn, the extremely pleasant star of Vera, and I finished up having a long chat with an old friend, that very fine writer Peter Robinson. The following night, I hosted a table at the Sicilian-themed murder mystery dinner masterminded by Kate Ellis. Great fun.

On Sunday, I took part in a panel celebrating the life and work of Patricia Highsmith. The moderator was Andrew Taylor and my colleagues were Peter James, Perer Swanson, and Sarah Hilary. Sarah had just won the Theakstons Prize for best crime novel of the year, and this gave me special pleasure as some years ago I included an early short story of hers in one of my anthologies for the CWA. She is a real star.

One questioner in the audience raised the issue of the relative significance of the author's life and the author's work. And this is my question to you - how interested, if at all, are you in the biography of a writer? Do you think it's relevant to their books?

My own views on this have shifted over the years. I used to think that the books were overwhelmingly more important than the life. Now, I take much more interest in the biographical material. In fact, I now think that you can't fully appreciate Highsmith (who, admittedly, had an extraordinary life) without knowing something of her life. But I'm sure that plenty of readers would take a different view. So - do let me know your opinion, and why you hold it.. 

Monday, 27 July 2015

The Golden Age of Murder - time to reflect


The past three months have been hectic, as The Golden Age of Murder has been published, and I've been running hither and thither to promote it, whilst not forgetting my other recent books, the anthologies Resorting to Murder and Truly Criminal. And now I've just received the fantastic news that the first edition hardback has almost sold out, and that the hardback edition is about to be reprinted.

I've been lucky with reviews over the years. Even for my legal books, believe it or not. But I've never had such an extensive and wonderful response to a book before. Take for instance the review in The Times by Marcel Berlins the other day, when the doyen of British crime critics set out his choice of summer reading. He said: "Few, if any , books about crime fiction have provided so much information and insight and, for the reader, so enjoyably...No other work mixes genre history, literary analysis and fascinating author biographies with such relish.

Wow! It really doesn't get any better than that for a writer, does it? I've been equally heartened by the many messages and emails I've received,about the book, quite literally from around the world, I've included extracts from the reviews on  my website, and these have been extremely gratifying. Although the book is not a novel, I wrote it as a novelist, and poured a lot of myself into it. I'm glad that my enthusiasm for the Golden Age communicated itself. 

I'm also grateful for the interest shown by fellow bloggers, and various other sites - including the BBC History site, Dead Good Reads, and Publishers' Weekly- which have published blog posts or articles of mine linked to the book's themes. Special thanks go to those novelists and leading crime fiction experts who commented on my manuscript prior to publication, and made it a better book. They are all friends with wise judgement,that I trust implicitly, and I'm very much in their debt. So take a bow: Peter Lovesey, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Ann Cleeves, Doug Greene, John Curran, Tom Schantz, Tony Medawar and Arthur Robinson.

The photo of "Poirot the Butler bearing Martin's book' is one I really enjoyed when I came across on Facebook, and I'm reproducing it courtesy of Kathy Harig of that terrific book store Mystery Loves Company - thanks again, Kathy! I'll continue, of course, to talk about The Golden Age of Murder on this blog and elsewhere. How could I resist? But before long I'll also be turning my attention to my next novel, The Dungeon House, which is due to be published in the UK and US in September. 
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Sunday, 26 July 2015

Partners in Crime - The Secret Adversary- BBC TV review

Partners in Crime, a new BBC series featuring Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, kicked off tonight with part one of The Secret Adversary, a thriller that was really quite a departure from her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie gave the title Partners in Crime to a collection of short stories written during the Twenties in which the Beresfords ran a detective agency and amused themselves by aping the methods of famous fictional sleuths.

Back in the Eighties, the Partners in Crime series was televised, and although some of the short stories are a little thin, Francesca Annis and James Warwick did a very good job as Tuppence and Tommy. So in theory the first question to ask about the new show is: how well did Jessica Raine and David Walliams do playing the same characters?

I suppose the real answer is that they are barely the same characters. The BBC hired Zinnie Harris, an accomplished mainstream playwright, to write the script, and I get the impression that she set herself the challenge of writing something as different from the original as was possible. Not just updating the story thirty years to the Cold War era, but introducing a touch of raunchiness and a scene in which a bumbling Tommy finds himself visiting a peep-show while on the trail of some bad guys.

Agatha Christie it ain't - the mystery element is pretty thin so far, as well - but it made for light and undemanding Sunday evening viewing. Not bad, and at times quite amusing, but definitely not for the purists. I'm fairly open-minded about this sort of thing, as I remind myself that I was introduced to Christie as a child through my enjoyment of a Miss Marple film based on a book that actually featured Poirot. To this day,I'm a huge Christie fan, but I'll approach future episodes with the intention of trying to forget the source material for the time being. Comparisons are pointless. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Forgotten Writer - Simon Nash

Something a little different today - the story of a forgotten writer, rather than a forgotten book. It's a story that came to me through the unlikeliest of routes. When I took part in the recent Liverpool University conference on James Ellroy, and spoke about The Golden Age of Murder, I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Routledge. 

Chris told me about a writer I was unfamiliar with - even though I have a copy of the Barzun and Taylor book (see below) which features one of his novels. I was so intrigued by the story that I asked Chris to tell me more, and I'm delighted that he's happy to share the tale with readers of this blog. Over to Chris.... 

"In the mid-twentieth century writing detective fiction had too much of a whiff of the lowbrow for many academics to admit to doing it, and yet many of them did, under assumed names. Michael Innes, pseudonym of J.I.M. Stewart is probably the best known. In what turned out to be the final few years of his life, I worked with my father in law to digitise some of the detective novels he wrote as a young academic in the early 1960s. Aiming to keep his academic publishing separate from his fiction, he used a pseudonym made from the surnames of his grandmothers: Simon Nash.

The Reverend Professor Raymond Chapman went on to have a successful academic career teaching English literature at the University of London, and continued in his parallel role as a non-stipendiary Anglican priest into a long and fruitful retirement. But in his 30s and early 40s, as Simon Nash, he wrote five detective novels based around his favourite subjects: the life of the university lecturer, English drama, and the day to day workings of parish churches.

Adam Ludlow, Nash’s series detective, is in many ways an idealised self-portrait of Raymond himself: he is a well-read lecturer in English literature, with a passion for Shakespeare, and a habit of coming up with an appropriate quotation for any given situation. Ludlow’s skill as a literary critic turns out to be unexpectedly ‘useful’ in reading clues and understanding character traits and motives. His gentle, but at times rather wicked, sense of humour is played off against the police inspector, Montero.

As is often the case in detective stories, the police in these novels are bound by protocol and thus doomed to appear dull operatives alongside the amateur detective’s imagination and flair. The pairing of Ludlow and Montero owes much to the precedent set by Holmes and Lestrade: despite their differences, Montero’s willingness to accept Ludlow’s superior intellect makes it possible for them to get along. But unlike Holmes, Adam Ludlow is no exceptional polymath. While his own ‘special knowledge’ enables him to solve these particular mysteries, he respects Montero’s expertise as a professional detective and accepts that he too is an educated man.
  
The first Adam Ludlow novel, Dead of a Counterplot (1962), was written for a competition run by the publisher Collins. It did’t win, but it was taken on by Geoffrey Bles and published in 1962. Four more Ludlow stories (Killed By Scandal (1962), Death over Deep Water (1964), Dead Woman’s Ditch (1964) and Unhallowed Murder (1966)) followed, before the combined forces of a young family and a developing academic career put a stop to Raymond’s novel writing. In truth Ludlow had probably run his course by then; by the mid-1960s the fashion for academic-as-detective stories was also on the wane.

Of the five novels Raymond wrote in his short career as Simon Nash, Killed by Scandal, a tale of murder in a suburban amateur dramatics society, was the most celebrated. It was among the ninety crime and detective novels named by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in their influential 1971 Catalogue of Crime, and was republished by Garland in 1983 as part of their series ‘Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction 1960-75’. All five novels were republished in the United States by Harper Row in 1985.

Raymond was delighted to be able to revive the Simon Nash novels and helped out in reading the digitised proofs to spot errors made by the OCR software and compounded by me. Sadly he died, aged 89, in November 2013, before we could go any further than the first two novels. I hope in time to complete the project and make all five Simon Nash novels available again."

This is the sort of project I love to hear about, and I'm very much looking forward to reading my first Simon Nash. Thanks, Chris.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Oxford and History


On Sunday night, immediately after departing from the Harrogate Festival (of which, more soon) I got in the mood for an unforgettable return to Oxford by watching, in a hotel on the outskirts of the city, "The Secret of Bay 5B." This was an episode of Inspector Morse dating back to 1989  This was an episode written by Alma Cullen, whom I had the pleasure of meeting many years ago, when my Harry Devlin books were first optioned for television, with Alma lined up to write the scripts. It never happened, which was not only the story of my life as regards TV,but also a shame, because she's written many excellent screenplays and proved to be excellent company.

Inspector Morse owed its success, as do its entertaining follow-ups Lewis and Endeavour, to a combination of well-plotted stories, quality acting, and perhaps above all, the wonderful background of Oxford. It was fascinating to see how little the city has changed, in all its real essentials, in more than a quarter of a century, and indeed in the many years since I spent a very happy time there. What changes are the "modern" bits. The richness of its history is an absolutely integral part of the city's appeal. Even if you don't love history as much as I do, being somewhere that has such an extraordinary past is quite a special feeling.

Alma's plot revolved around a corpse discovered in the Westgate multi-storey car park. Yet this is now being demolished - and a good thing too, I have to say; it was a very ugly place. Alma came up with a clever plot twist involving a car parking ticket and an alibi, and one other car-related change is the ease with which, in the 1980s, you could drive down High Street. Not so today. Oxford is now designed to be very unfriendly to motorists, which is fine as long as you don't have to collect loads of luggage from your offspring's college right in the centre of the city...

The occasion of my trip was again offspring-related, as my publicity adviser and ace multi-lingual writer and journalist Catherine Edwards was awarded her degree after four years spent studying German and Italian, not only in Oxford but also such wonderful cities as Berlin and Bologna. It was lovely to see her celebrate her great success in the stunning surroundings of Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre, and to listen to an excellent speech by the Vice-Chancellor reminding us all of the remarkable 800 year history of the university before heading back to Lincoln College for further celebrations. Oxford is a unique place, and my visit on Monday will live in my memory for as long as I'm able to remember.







 

Monday, 20 July 2015

Oldboy - 2013 film review

Oldboy, an American film released two years ago, is directed by Spike Lee, and is evidently a re-make of a Korean movie from a decade earlier, of which I know little. The film stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, a rather unpleasant ad man whose relationship has broken down, and who treats his young daughter unfeelingly. Not someone to whom one warms instinctively, to put it mildly. His personality flaws prove to be central to the plot.

Mysteriously, Doucett is abducted and finishes up as a captive in a cell from which escape seems impossible. He is fed, and has access to a television which keeps playing a true crime show covering the apparent murder of his ex, for which he is the one and only suspect. But he is innocent of the crime. Twenty years pass, and then suddenly, he is released, and befriended by the attractive Marie (Elizabeth Olsen.) What on earth is going on?

This is a truly intriguing premise, and the story does have fascinating elements, not least the organisation behind the prison where Doucett is held, which is headed by a bizarre character played by Samuel L. Jackson. For me, the trouble is that the violent scenes in which Doucett attacks a variety of people who wish him ill have a comic book feel that rob them of intensity, and make the whole film seem unrealistic. For me, this was a major shortcoming.

Doucett is plainly the victim of a mysterious plot, and as the nature of the plot becomes increasingly clear, it also felt increasingly familiar. Oldboy isn't a bad film by any means, but it does not live up to its potential. Whether the Korean original is much superior, I simply don't know, but internet reviews suggest that it is.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Forgotten Book - Background for Murder

Today, my Forgotten Book comes from another author whose reputation owed much to the advocacy of Julian Symons in Bloody Murder. Shelley Smith was a writer he greatly admired, and his enthusiasm prompted me to read her avidly in my younger days. Suffice to say that I shared his opinion about the excellence and variety of her writing. An Afternoon to Kill, in particular, is a real tour de force.

Background for Murder was her very first book, published in 1942, and I've only recently tracked it down and read it. Whilst Smith later developed into an accomplished writer of psychological suspense, this is a genuine whodunit, with a dizzying list of suspects. But she was clearly also trying to update the classic form. The story is narrated by Jacob Chaos, a private eye who is called in (rather improbably, to be honest) by Scotland Yard, to solve a baffling murder mystery which has the local police stumped. There's a distant influence of Philip Marlowe here, although Chaos is not a tough guy, and the setting is much more genteel than the mean streets of Chandlertown.

The setting is, in fact, a hospital for the mentally ill, and one of the interesting features of the book when read today is how attitudes towards the mentally ill have changed in the last seventy odd years. They've changed markedly for the better, although in my opinion there's still a long way to go. But it seems to me that this book was quite 'progressive' in its attitudes - by the standards of the Forties. Smith was a young writer, and the plot touches on issues such as abortion and a key character who is described as "sexually gay" (I discovered that this meant the chap in question was heterosexual but promiscuous.)

The author's youth and inexperience are evident in the liveliness of the story and also one or two flaws. Overall, though, it's a very good debut, although Chaos only appeared in one more book, as Smith rapidly moved away from whodunits. Smith's real name was Nancy Hermione Bodington, nee Courlander. She wrote vividly, and it's no surprise that she later became involved in film work - she was one of those who worked on the screenplay of that successful movie Tiger Bay. Her career as a crime writer rather petered out in the Seventies, but Symons was right. She was a fine crime novelist.


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Cold in July - film review

Cold in July is a film from last year which is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale. At first, it seems that the plot will follow fairly conventional lines, but soon it diverges from the predictable, and becomes increasingly intriguing and unorthodox. The result is a film that I found very watchable indeed.

Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, an ordinary guy who runs a picture framing business. One night he is woken by his wife, who has heard an intruder prowling around their home. Richard grabs his gun and shoots the man. The police tell him that the dead man was Frederick Russell, a wanted man whose father was also a career criminal. Richard is haunted by what he has done, and when he visits Russell's grave, he encounters the father, Ben, played with taciturn menace by Sam Shephard.

Richard is afraid that Ben intends to exact revenge by doing harm to his own son, and after initial scepticism, the local police are supportive. Ben enters the Danes' house, but escapes without harming the Danes' son, and Richard is told that he has left the area. But then Richard sees a picture of Frederick Russell - and his face is different from that of the man he shot. What on earth is going on?

The plot rapidly thickens, and the story takes a fresh turn when a private eye played by Don Johnson turns up on the scene. To say much more would be a spoiler, but I thought that Shephard and Johnson were terrific, and the story zips along in a satisfying, if quirky, way. I have a Lansdale novel on my shelves that I have yet to read, and this enjoyable film has encouraged me to promote it up the TBR list.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Douglas Stewart and Hard Place - guest blog


One of the great unsolved mysteries, or so it seems to me, is why there are so many crime writing attorneys in the US, and yet relatively few from Britain. Is it because we are worked much harder in the UK? Having talked to some very industrious American lawyers, I'm sure there must be some other reason! But I'm not sure what it is. 

One senior British lawyer who has also written a number of crime and thriller novels is my pal Doug Stewart (pictured outside the legendary Poisoned Pen book store in Scottsdale when he and I spent some time in Arizona together.) Doug is, like me, focusing increasingly on his fiction, and I am delighted to host this contribution from him. Do take a look at his sites, by the way, where you will find much of interest, including some attractive offers: Here is welcome news, not only about his latest book but also of a forthcoming updated version of a title in the legendary Collins Crime Club series. Over to you, Doug:: 

"What a privilege to be invited to guest-blog on Martin’s site! As fellow solicitors I can remember reading a review in a legal journal of one of his early Harry Devlin books and making contact. We have remained friends ever since. From the wings, I have watched him juggle his impressive legal career with his development into a doyen of crime and crime fiction - both underpinned by his encyclopaedic knowledge.

In contrast, having taken early retirement as senior partner of a London firm, I gambled on a future devoted mainly to writing and based in Las Vegas. Life there was great and inspired a thriller (Late Bet) but overall the bet was lost. I returned to Europe and once again mixed the law with my writing, albeit very enjoyably and only part-time. Happily however, the balance is tipping again towards my love of writing. 

With the arrival of Amazon and eBooks, not only have I got publishers for my new books but several of my backlist have already been released as eBooks. One of my favourites was Cellars’ Market published by Collins Crime Club. Not only is the original to re-appear as an eBook but the publishers want me to write a revamped version to be updated and rebranded.

Besides Hard Place, a new mystery thriller just published involving Det. Inspector Todd “Ratso” Holtom, I have two more publications before the year-end. Having foolishly spurned wise advice in my early days to continue developing a series based on the same character, I Ratso will star in another book now on the way and in a short story for inclusion in an anthology. Why “Ratso”? Because my aim is to create a brand - and given the power of Google, I wanted a name that would stick. For readers who will too quickly forget Douglas Stewart and Todd Holtom, hopefully they will not forget Ratso. That’s the theory, folks! You can email me on Doug@douglasstewartbooks.com or find me on Twitter (@DougSBooks), Facebook (DouglasstewartBooks) and on the web at www.douglasstewartbooks.com

Thanks again, Martin! And congratulations on The Golden Age of Murder, a true magnus opus."