Friday, 29 May 2015

Forgotten Book - Nightmare Cottage

I'd never come across G.M.Wilson, let alone her novel Nightmare Cottage, before I read an extremely positive review of the story on John Norris' splendid blog. John is an excellent judge - he introduced me to another long-neglected author, Claude Houghton, amongst others - and I determined to track down the novel. I've finally managed to find and read a copy, and it's my Forgotten Book for today.

John gives a fine account of the story, and I won't attempt to compete with it,.Rather, I'll start by reflecting on the fact that the book's lack of renown probably has a great deal to do with the fact that it was originally published in the UK, in 1963, by Robert Hale, a company closely associated with the public library market. There tends to be a stereotype that Hale books are inferior, but anyone who makes that assumption is likely to miss out on some very good books Pamela Barrington, to whom I was introduced by Kacper, via a comment on this blog, is among the Hale authors who wrote some very enjoyable work.

Gertrude Mary Wilson was, so I learn from Allen J. Hubin's brilliant and indispensable bibliography of the genre, born in 1899, and her career as a crime novelist began in the Fifties, continuing into the Seventies. Throughout she was published by Hale, and her regular detective was Inspector Lowick, who features here in tandem with Miss Purdy, an appealing amateur sleuth. John, incidentally, mentions in a comment on his blog post that he in turn was tipped off about Wilson by a review from the late and much missed Bill Deeck on the hugely informative Mystery*File blog.

I enjoyed the book, and found the story to be constructed with skill. That said, I wasn't quite as enthusiastic as John, and it's not entirely easy to explain why I wasn't as gripped as I should have been as the plot complications unfolded. I suppose that for me the mystery lacked the intensity that I like, and which I find very often, for instance, in the allegedly genteel and cosy world of Christie and Sayers. But then, they were two superstars, and G.M. Wilson was undoubtedly a capable story-teller who doesn't deserve to be forgotten. I'm glad that John, and Bill, highlighted her work.   .

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Impact - movie review

I'm a fan of film noir, and some time ago, I treated myself to a box set of vintage films in that vein. But I have only got round to watching them now, and I decided to kick off my viewing with Impact, from 1949, a little-known movie with a screneplay co-written by Jay Dratler, who had previously worked on the script for that much more celebrated film, the excellent Laura.

Brian Donlevy plays Walter Williams, who is introduced to us as a dynamic young businessman,able to twist a board of grumpy directors around his little finger. But when he goes home to his wife Irene (Helen Williams) a different side to his character appears. He is a "softy", quite besotted with her. This being a film noir, however, you can bet that Irene, for all her protestations, is not equally crazy about him.

The early scenes are lacklustre in the extreme, but things liven up once Irene persuades doting Walter to give a lift to a young "cousin" who is, in fact, her lover,.Jim.  The plan is for Jim to drive Walter to a lonely spot on the edge of a cliff, kill him, and get away with murder. But Jim is not very bright, and things do not work out as he and Irene intended.

This is a decent piece of entertainment, and Walter finds himself trapped in a situation which just about validates the description of Impact as a film noir. Charles Coburn steals several scenes as a likeable cop. But the script is not as sharp as it could have been, and Walter's blind spot about Irene is rather hard to take. Worth watching, but a long way short of Laura . Then again, most films are.

Monday, 25 May 2015

CADS 70

The arrival of a new issue of CAD is always a cause for celebration, and I have just devoured issue 70 of Geoff Bradley's splendid and long-running magazine for crime fiction lovers. Once again, the contents range far and wide. If you are a fan of the genre and you don't know CADS, do check it out. I'm confident that you will be impressed.

Several long-standing contributors are again featured. They include Barry Pike, continuing his series about the Mr Fortune series of H.C.Bailey. The fact that I've developed an increasing admiration for Bailey is largely due to Barry's advocacy; I still find Bailey's style irksome, but I've been persuaded that at his best, he was a very powerful and unusual writer.  There are no fewer than three short pieces by the indefatigible Philip Scowcroft, one of them dealing with Val Gielgud, whose detective fiction is discussed surprisingly seldom. Tony Medawar contributes another "On This Day" snippet, and Mike Ripley writes about Peter Cheney, while there is a poignant final contribution from the late Bob Adey.

Geoff talks about Bob in his editorial notes, and there is also a wonderful piece by Scott Herbertson about someone else who, in a very different way, is also a huge loss to the crime fiction community, P.D. James. I very much enjoyed John Cooper's essay about Henry Wade's Inspector Poole, while Curt Evans writes about Ianthe Jerrold, two of whose detective novels are happily available again after a long gap.

I haven't written as much for CADS in recent years as I've wished, because of the demands of The Golden Age of Murder (which to my amazement has just been reviewed in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal) and other projects, but this time I've contributed an essay which talks about the influence that CADS has had on my book. As anyone who has read the book, and in particular the end notes, will see, that influence has been quite considerable and has spanned many years. Had it not been for what I have learned from CADS, I would still have written the book, but it wouldn't have had as much information in it. I'm one of many writers and crime fans who has cause to thank Geoff for his decades of hard work as editor.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Azma Dar - guest blog about The Secret Arts

Azma Dar is a playwright who has turned to crime fiction with a book called  The Secret Arts, published by Dean Street Press, whose eclectic list includes numerous classic crime reprints. I've not yet read her novel, but I'm always pleased to learn of newcomers to the crime writing scene, and here's a guest blog post from her which explains the background:

"Although crime is my favourite genre, I’d always been a bit scared to try my hand at it myself, worried that I wasn’t clever enough to write an ingenious plot. My plays are mostly set in London and explore contemporary themes and issues, serious subjects looked at with, I hope, a bit of humour. I’d wanted to write something about black magic, superstitions and “religious” old men who sold charms and cures for some time. I’d heard of these beliefs whilst growing up. 

Unfortunate events were often attributed to evil eyes and curses, and I was fascinated and angered by how easily these theories, rooted in tradition and culture, were accepted by otherwise intelligent and rational minds. Then, on a trip to Pakistan, I heard even more outlandish but supposedly true anecdotes, involving protective chillis, mystical glasses of water, wicked in-laws, jinns, spirits and the odd boiled egg. The idea for a sinister, murderous novel began to take shape.

During that trip we visited the small town of Murree, a pretty, old fashioned place in the hills, full of forests and precarious winding roads. Most strikingly, it was enveloped in a creeping mist. It would seem like a clear day, then suddenly within minutes you could see no further than a couple of metres. It was all that lovely fog which inspired me to set the novel in Murree. It felt like a really atmospheric backdrop for a spooky story.

The novel became The Secret Arts, the story of Saika, a young woman who marries an older man, a respectable Colonel, but her bliss is short lived when she starts hearing rumours about the suspicious death of his first wife. Meanwhile the rest of the family members are entangled in lies and secrets, meddling in black magic and placing curses on each other. When one of her cousins is murdered, and her husband starts behaving strangely, Saika becomes determined to unravel the truth...."



Friday, 22 May 2015

Forgotten Book - The Judas Window

Why has it taken me so long to get round to reading Carter Dickson's The Judas Window? It is regarded highly by a number of good judges who are fans of Dickson - better known as John Dickson Carr. I suppose my main justification for describing it as a Forgotten Book is that I've forgotten, or at least neglected, to read it until now.

I've long admired Carr's work, and his mastery of the intricacies of the "impossible crime". In particular, I am a fan of the books featuring Dr Gideon Fell, the Chestertonian lexicographer who strs in classics such as The Hollow Man. A good many people prefer Sir Henry Merrivale, alias "H.M.", who is the rumbustious hero of the books written under the Carter Dickson alias. This is, in part, because of their humour - one of the neat features of the stories is that sometimes a slapstick scene will conceal an important clue to the mystery.

Merrivale features in a truly brilliant short story, "The House in Goblin Wood", but I've not been quite as keen on some of the Merrivale novels I've read. But The Judas Window is a high calibre mystery, no question of that. It's also rather different from "typical" Carr stories, in that it centres around a murder trial at the Old Bailey- and Merrivale is counsel for the defence.

His client is Jimmy Answell, a young man who seems the only possible suspect in a locked room murder case. We know Jimmy is innocent, but how on earth can this be established, in the face of apparently overwhelming evidence that he killed his prospective father-in-law? As the trial proceeds, we come across testimony from various people in the dead man's circle - but how can any of them have committed the crime? And if one of them did do the dastardly deed, for what reason?

The technicalities of the crime are very cleverly handled. I was much less convinced by the culprit's motivation, but the fact is that Carr was not as preoccupied with criminal psychology as some of his colleagues in the Detection Club. Yet he could weave a tantalising mystery, and I agree with those who rate this book highly. If you are a locked room fan, I recommend you get round to reading it more quickly than I did..

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Reaction to The Golden Age of Murder

When you publish a book, it's usually far from easy to predict how it will be received. You've done your best with it, your agent and editor are happy with it (bad news if they aren't!), but you can never quite be sure how others will react. Authors are often said not to be the best judges of their own work. My most commercially successful novel is The Coffin Trail, and in sales terms, my least commercially successful, is Dancing for the Hangman. Yet my own feeling is that the latter book is possibly, in literary terms, my best. Who knows? All these judgments are subjective, like all reviews.

So I was unsure about how people would respond to The Golden Age of Murder. It's 25 years (even I find this hard to believe) since I pitched the idea of an Oxford Companion about the crime genre to the late Michael Cox, then a senior editor at Oxford University Press, and later a successful novelist, so people can see how long it's taken me to reach this point. When you've worked long and hard on a project, you hope the results will justify the effort. But there are no guarantees; life isn't like that.

I realised over time that I wanted to write a book that was ambitious, wide-ranging, very personal, and... different. Rash of me, really. I don't even know for sure if it is, as some have said, a reference book. A quarter of a century ago, I did want to write a reference book, but my priorities have evolved as I've developed as a novelist. Above all, I wanted to tell a story, and the more I researched it, the more I felt that the story of the early years of the Detection Club deserved to be told. And it was important to me to tell the story with a degree of empathy with the writers, and also with humour .

To say that I've been thrilled by readers' reaction to this book to date is true, but it hardly conveys the excitement I feel about the number of people who have "got" what I was trying to do. It's a long book, with a tight structure that is not very obvious, although each chapter does have a distinct theme. So I thought that the readers most likely to appreciate it might be those who read it more than once, and then found they enjoyed going back to it. And since I was aiming to interest Golden Age fans but also to intrigue and entertain those who  had little or no real interest in GA books, I was expecting quite a lot of scepticism. That may still come, of course. But the reviews so far have been fantastic, beyond my wildest dreams..I've been lucky throughout my career to have been reviewed in national newspapers as well as specialist magazines and more recently blogs, but I've never had so many great reviews in such a short space of time

One or two extremely interesting projects have already been mooted as a result of the book's appearance, and if anything comes of them, that will certainly be a bonus. In my own mind, I am primarily a novelist and short story writer, rather than a writer of non-fiction, but I care about, and take care over, all my books, and I certainly care very much about the story told in The Golden Age of Murder. I'm so pleased that plenty of other people seem to care too.





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Monday, 18 May 2015

Crimefest 2015





I'm just back from Crimefest, which was - as always - brilliantly organised by Adrian, Myles, Donna and their friendly and hard-working team. Twenty-five years have passed since I attended my first crime convention, the London Bouchercon of 1990, and during that time conventions have become an important part of the literary landscape - unquestionably a Good Thing.

Adrian and company kindly agreed that the Forgotten Authors' panel this year should be themed around The Golden Age of Murder,and I had a wonderful group of friends to help me in celebrating the book's UK publication (celebration enhanced over the course of the convention by terrific reviews from The Daily Mail, The Spectator, Bookbag, and Crime Fiction Lover). Dolores Gordon-Smith, Aline Templeton, John Curran and this year's CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Catherine Aird all came up with all manner of insights for the audience, and it was sheer pleasure to moderate the panel (the photo was taken by Karen Meek, whose Eurocrime blog is required reading for fans.)

That evening, I had dinner with Catherine and a few friends - a memorable occasion. She is one of those authors I admired long before I met her, and when we did meet, I found, as I have often done with major authors, that she is great company as well as a fine detective novelist. I continue to hope very much that she will publish her long-awaited biography of Josephine Tey, about whom she spoke rather movingly.

My second panel, moderated by John Harvey (whose "Fedora" is one of the best crime short stories of the past decade), tacked the subject of the short story. Andrew Taylor intrigued me by talking about his ghost story, which is a Kindle single,, and I was delighted to meet Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who read out a very short but striking example of his work. The other panellist was Christine Poulson, one of Britain's most under-rated crime writers, and author of several highly distinctive short stories. Other events of note included Sophie Hannah and Matthew Prichard talking about The Monogram Murders, and Lee Child interviewing the legendary Maj Sjowall.

The banquet was smoothly run, and I was very lucky with all my dining companions, who included Catherine Aird, Sheila Mitchell (widow of Harry Keating) and James Runcie, author of the highly successful Grantchester books, who proved to be a witty toastmaster. I'd never met James before, but soon discovered he was a fellow Manchester City fan; after that, it was a struggle not to keep talking football, but somehow we managed it.

I met some other pleasant people for the first time, and as ever it was good to catch up with old friends. The latter include Ali Karim, pictured above with The Golden Age of Murder. Ali is one of the most entertaining companions one could wish to have, and I am really sorry that I shall not be with him at Bouchercon at Raleigh in October, where he will make a fabulous job of his far from easy task as programming chair. I also had the chance to talk to the publishers of the CWA fiction anthology and non-fiction anthology, as well as to catch up with my own publisher, Susie Dunlop of Allison & Busby, who hosted a drinks party during the week-end. It was lovely to see her again, and I'm so glad she's pleased with the next Lake District Mystery, The Dungeon House. All in all, a terrific week-end which I shall long remember.




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Friday, 15 May 2015

Forgotten Book - The Blunderer

The Blunderer, by Patricia Highsmith, was first published in 1954. By that time, she had already made her name, with her brilliant debut novel Strangers on a Train. She'd also written, under a pseudonym, a lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, later (wisely, I think) re-titled Carol. A year later she would publish her other great masterpiece, The Talented Mr Ripley. So she was clearly at a very productive and intense stage of her career. And The Blunderer illustrates her strengths pretty well, though it also reveals some of her limitations.

The set-up is, as usual with Highsmith, intriguing. In the first chapter, an unpleasant chap called Kimmel murders his wife, having first taken the precaution of trying to set up an alibi. Attention then shifts to the life of Walter Stackhouse, an affluent, good-looking and personable young lawyer with a rather irritating wife. In due course, the lives of Stackhouse and Kimmel will collide, with devastating results for both of them.

This book begins really well, and I found the central premise fascinating. Unfortunately, I became increasingly irritated with Walter's behaviour. He is a prime example of a Highsmith protagonist who behaves in a manner that is not only self-destructive, but also so obviously so that it is difficult to maintain sympathy with him. The same pattern recurs in books like A Suspension of Mercy and Those Who Walk Away, which I reviewed recently. Highsmith deploys various techniques in her attempt to persuade us to suspend our disbelief. In this early book, I think she is less successful than in the later books. I found my sympathy for Walter draining away, and this diminished my interest in his fate.

That said, Highsmith was an admirably ambitious writer, and even her failures (and this book isn't, in my opinion, really a success) are more interesting than many books where the author is much less daring. More than sixty years after its first appearance, I feel that its prime interest is as an example of a relatively inexperienced novelist grappling with challenges of technique. But this is much more interesting than it may sound. I had very mixed feelings about The Blunderer, but I'm still glad I read it.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Memories of Brian Clemens

When I was growing up, I became aware that the name Brian Clemens often appeared on credits of TV shows that I enjoyed. The Avengers was a special favourite. I never met him, and he died in January aged 83. Recently, I was contacted by his sons about a new Clemens project, and to explain more, let me hand over to Sam Clemens, who offered to give me some personal insights into his father's life and work:

"Living with Brian Clemens was always an adventure and an education. He had an incredible encyclopedic memory and was quick to educate and provoke if necessary. He loved to read and felt that reading is what spurred on a huge amount of his creativity. His favorite writer was Charles Dickens and favorite book ‘Diary Of A Nobody’. He read diagonally, so as to speed read. I remember he read ‘Hannibal’ in a morning! When he was a boy, his uncle Horace would bring him books to read, ranging from fiction, encyclopedias, to instruction manuals on cameras or the latest technology. Growing up listening to the radio and being a boy during the war, he always said kept his imagination rife. Many times he would say he loved the war period, as it was so exciting for a young boy to find bullet casings, bits of shrapnel or to walk through ruins and smoke fuelled aftermaths. At the age of 10 his father Bertie bought him his first typewriter, the rest as they say is history.

When asked about the discipline of writing, Dad would always say ‘Arse to chair, pen to paper!’ a motto drilled into him by ‘The Danziger Brothers’ early on in his career. He always maintained it stood him in good stead because after writing for them, he thought everything else was fairly easy. This is because the Danziger’s bought old sets from other movies and would make small B pictures to run alongside the bigger films. The sets very often being the catalyst for the stories themselves. Having to write a film with a submarine, a Victorian street and a pyramid and be able to have half an hour cut out for a TV version and still make sense was a master class in writing and an end to procrastination. Deadlines were set and met. Dad always said it was like being in a theatre repertory company for writers.

His happiest time was on ‘The Avengers’ as he could create almost anything he wanted; also he was able to work with all of his close friends. Raymond Austin, Laurie Johnson, Patrick Macnee, Bob Fuest, Albert Fennell, Sidney Hayers, James Hill, Richard Harris, Terry Nation, John Hough, Johnny Goodman, Bob Jones, Ivy Baker, June Randall, the list goes on…

Dad’s writing style was very often bizarre and wonderful. Although he wrote fantasy, he was not that fond of the genre, preferring a good thriller. He was never afraid of ghosts but of who was lurking upstairs or around the corner. Reality scared him. He was a nightmare to watch films with, as he would always guess the ending. I remember he guessed the twist in ‘The Crying Game’ in the trailer! He loved a good story and a great plot but what was most important were the characters. I think the image of ‘Mother’ in ‘The Avengers’ sitting in the middle of a swimming pool, in a suit with a telephone sums him up. His characters could be devilishly surreal or completely grounded in reality depending on what world he was writing for.  My opinion of Dad is that he was a master of being able to adapt to whomever he was working with and whatever he was working on. A nice piece of advice he offered writers in the last few years of his life was that you should always stop knowing what the next ten pages are going to be the next day. That way when you begin the next day you can continue without staring at the blank page.

The other love and inspiration were movies. You could never come to our house without either being shown or talking about movies. Again, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of them and unknowingly gave George and myself an education in film. He would watch Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, The Terminator, The Cruel Sea, Star Wars, again the list was endless and very varied indeed. He really had great affection for central European films, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hungarian etc. He would find films we had never heard of and they would end up being household favorites. ‘The Page Turner’, ‘The Castle’, ‘Les Diaboliques’, ‘The Wages Of Fear’, ‘Rififi’.

We were lucky enough in the last few years of his life to work on a script together called ‘The Still’. A supernatural horror film, which we are developing right now. It was a privilege to work together and he was always very supportive of our decisions. He never pressured us into following him into his business. I trained as an actor at The Drama Centre London and have been working since I graduated in 2001. In fact, I am playing Sherlock Holmes in his stage play of ‘Holmes & The Ripper Murders’ for Talking Scarlet Productions over the summer. George trained as an editor and has been working since 2004. We fell into making films together and it felt like all our training up till then was to be producing and directing together. We have made three short films and one teaser trailer (The Still) together. Our last short ‘Dress Rehearsal’ is currently being entered into film festivals all over the world, which Dad was Executive Producer. Our latest short is entitled ‘Surgery’ and was Dad’s very last idea. We were discussing it together the day before he died. We wanted to make this for us but also as a tribute to our father. We are running a crowdfunding campaign because we need to raise £4K for the postproduction of the film. The film stars Nicholas Ball (Hazell), Jamie Lee (Cold Mountain, Lassie, Shackelton) and Lara Lemon (A Prelude To Fear). It is darker than Dad’s previous material but again, his adaptive nature allowed him to think this little horror nasty up.


George and I have plenty of Dad’s unproduced scripts to pursue in the future and we intend to do so. Look out for his WW2 picture ‘The Long Road West’, a script he maintained was his finest, as we agree too.  Brian Clemens fans, there is still plenty more of Brian to come. Watch this space…..

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Stranger Than Fiction by Neil Clark

The full title of Neil Clark's new book is Stranger than Fiction: The Life of Edgar Wallace, The Man Who Created King Kong. That rather suggests an anxiety that people may not know who Edgar Wallace was. And it's true that, inevitably, given that more than eighty years have passed since his death, his name is much less well known than it used to be. But it remains the case, I think, that it is still fairly well known.

I first came across Edgar Wallace as a teenager, in the days when some of his books were being reprinted as Pan paperbacks. I wasn't so keen on the thrillers,but I remember that I quite enjoyed The Clue of the Silver Key, which was closer to the sort of detective story that I loved. I also caught several episodes of that long-running TV series, Edgar Wallace Mysteries. Later, I read The Four Just Men, which strikes me as very interesting as a slice of social and political history. It's also revealing, in that Wallace discusses a society fearful of immigration, and his instincts are clearly liberal.

Neil Clark discusses Wallace's interest in politics, as well as his journalism, his gambling and various other escapades. He was in many ways a rascal - I've always felt that his role in the Crippen case, when he was desperate to tease a confession out of Crippen, was discreditable. He wasn't a reliable or particularly trustworthy man. But he had a number of very important gifts. Above all, he was a great story-teller.

I'm involved in a Wallace-related project myself at the moment, and I found this book useful, as was the much earlier biography by Margaret Lane. The publisher of Clark's book is The History Press, who, perhaps I should mention, also recently published my CWA anthology, Truly Criminal. As usual, they have produced an attractive book that is well worth reading. I regret the lack of an index, which seems to me to be a mistake, but overall this is a book which I am sure will help to remind people of what an interesting writer and character Edgar Wallace really was. And yes, his life story was indeed stranger than fiction.