Monday, 31 August 2015

Tom Adams Uncovered

When my first novel came out in a paperback edition, the sales rep from Transworld took me out for lunch during the course of a memorable and hugely enjoyable day, travelling round the bookshops and signing copies of the book. He was a pleasant chap and very experienced in the bookselling business, so I asked what he thought really mattered in making a novel saleable. "It's the cover, Martin," he said. "Always the cover."

This was not the answer I was expecting, or indeed hoping for. I pressed him, but he was insistent. Booksellers he visited would flick through his catalogue for a minute of so, picking out which covers they liked and would buy. The books themselves didn't really matter. Well, this may or may not have been a slightly jaundiced view, but the fact is that covers do matter. I can, for instance, vividly recall the cover of the first adult novel I ever read. It was the Fontana paperback of The Murder at the Vicarage.

That same cover features in a new book, Tom Adams Uncovered, which is sub-titled "The Art of Agatha Christie and Beyond." Tom Adams was the gifted artist responsible for many of the Christie paperback covers that I devoured at the age of nine and ten - other examples in the book include The Moving Finger, One Two, Buckle My Shoe and The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. John Curran, the leading expert on Christie, provides useful commentaries which supplement the artist's own thoughts about the covers.

Those Christie covers really are very striking, and it's no wonder that they are now regarded as iconic. There is, of course, much more to Tom Adams as an artist than Christie. I was interested to learn that he was responsible for the cover of Manwatching, a book hugely successful in its day, as well as covers for authors as varied as John Fowles, Peter Straub and Raymond Chandler. Cover artwork is a fascinating subject, and I hope to return to it in the future. In the meantime, I found Tom Adams Uncovered appealing and very attractive..

Friday, 28 August 2015

Forgotten Book - Send for Paul Temple

I've mentioned before that Francis Durbridge's Paul Temple is one of my guilty pleasures. I'm delighted to say that Harper Collins have just reissued five early Paul Temple books - all adapted from radio serials, - and I've just gulped down the first of them, Send for Paul Temple, my Forgotten Book for today. I'd previously listened to an audio version of this story, but it was still an entertaining example of the ripping yarn. Durbridge was no Tolstoy, but he knew how to keep his readers/listeners interested.

There's a mystery, incidentally, about the authorship of this book. What happened was that Durbridge, a young man of 25, created Paul Temple for the radio,and the success of this story prompted thousands of listeners to demand more of the same - suffice to say that Durbridge certainly obliged them, as Temple became an immensely popular long-running character. Durbridge also turned the story into a novel, but for that he had a co-writer, John Thewes, who seems rather to have been airbrushed from history.

I've consulted Melvyn Barnes, the greatest authority on Durbridge, and he is fairly sure that Thewes was a pen-name for Charles Hatton, who co-wrote several Temple books as Hatton. But why he adopted a pen-name for one collaboration and not others is unclear. Or maybe Charles Hatton was another pseudonym? Possibly he worked for the BBC, but information about him is scant.I, and indeed Melvyn, would be glad to learn more

One of the reasons I mention this little mystery, by the way, is that I've recently been sent some fascinating info about Gerald Findler, the ultra-obscure author of a story I included in Resorting to Murder. Not even that legendary mine of information Bob Adey had been able to trace any details about Findler, but a correspondent has now told me quite a bit about him. So often, interesting know-how is out there; the challenge is to get hold of it. But the internet, for all its quirks and unreliability, does make the task easier.

Anyway, back to Paul Temple. Scotland Yard is baffled by a series of jewel robberies in the Midlands. The only clue is the dying words of two members of the gang who helped with "inside jobs" before being murdered for their pains. But what is the significance of the words "The Green Finger"? The Press campaign noisily for Temple, a wealthy writer and criminologist, to be consulted by the Yard.

Soon the great man finds himself in the thick of it. Luckily, he meets a pretty and dynamic blonde reporter who uses the alias Steve Trent, and has her own reasons to help him. In the course of their attempts to solve the mystery, they fall in love. As we now know, they lived happily - and very adventurously - ever after.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Riot Club - film review

The Riot Club is a film from last year, based on Laura Wade's successful play Posh. Rather like The History Boys, it has an ensemble cast of mainly young actors, including the sons of those fine actors Jeremy Irons and Edward Fox. Tom Hollander, who has a fairly minor role as a sinister MP (is there any other kind?) is perhaps the best-known name, but the quality of the acting is consistently high.

The eponymous club has historic origins and is based in Oxford University. In essence, it's a collection of ten rich, posh young men with a taste for drink and debauchery. There's a disclaimer in the credits, but it doesn't take a great detective to suspect that Wade is having a swipe at the Bullingdon Club. A pretty easy target to aim at, it has to be said.

This is a story about the abuse of privilege, but it's perhaps most impressive if seen as a story about gang culture. The members of the Riot Club behave in a way that is offensive and deeply unpleasant, just like members of other gangs. In this story two new members are recruited, and a dinner is organised at a gastro-pub far distant from Oxford, because the Riot Club has been banned from everywhere nearer. As the lads become more and more drunk, things turn increasingly, and very predictably, nasty.

This is a well-made and, for all its lack of subtlety, extremely watchable film. I enjoyed it, although I couldn't identify with it in the way I could with some aspects of The History Boys. I felt that the script panders to prejudices - possibly including my own prejudices, given that, although I studied at Oxford, I was neither posh nor rich, and nor were my friends. That said, it makes some good points, as well as facile ones. I did wonder if young Irons and Fox felt slightly uncomfortable about some of the criticism of inherited privilege. But there's no reason why they should. They are clearly very good actors, and it seems likely that they will have highly successful careers..  

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Under-estimated Mr Balchin

I've written before about Nigel Balchin on this blog, and as a result I've entered into a very interesting correspondence with Derek Collett, whose biography of Balchin is about to be published. Derek has sent me a copy, and I'm a hundred pages in at the moment. The verdict so far is very positive -more at a later date. In the meantime, I invited Derek to tell us more about his work on Balchin, and here is his guest blog:

"In most fields of creative endeavour in which I am interested—painting, music, cinema, etc.—I tend to be attracted primarily to those artists who have been forgotten by the mainstream and are consequently hiding in the shadows, to the extent that the majority of the population are blissfully unaware of their existence. So it is with literature too and the novelist Nigel Balchin can certainly be described as a writer who has gone missing since his death in 1970—very few people remember him nowadays.

I discovered Balchin’s work entirely by accident. In the early 1990s I had the good fortune to watch an enthralling three-part BBC Television drama. The novel from which this entertainment had been crafted was Never Come Back by John Mair. Is anyone still reading this superb 1941 political thriller these days? If not, then I can heartily recommend it. About a year after watching the TV series, I managed to find a copy of Never Come Back in my local bookshop. Nestling in the endpapers was a notice for another book that caught my eye—The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin. The blurb sounded promising: ‘As an account of the war experience, the book is realistic and unsettling, and as a study of a personality under stress, it reveals perennial truths.’ I quickly tracked down a copy of Balchin’s 1943 masterpiece, read it, loved it and proceeded to read all of his other books. Things snowballed from there and my quest to discover all that I could about Balchin has recently culminated with the publication of His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin, the first biography to have been devoted to this fascinating individual.

Like his friend, the painter and sculptor Michael Ayrton (the two men remained friends even after Ayrton had run off with Balchin’s wife), Balchin was a polymath. He succeeded not just as a novelist but also as an essayist, non-fiction and short-story writer, BAFTA-winning screenwriter, broadcaster and industrial psychologist (his crowning achievement in this sphere was playing a pivotal role in the introduction of Black Magic chocolates in 1933). During World War Two he excelled in the army, working first in personnel selection and then in Whitehall as a ‘boffin’. So impressive was he whilst clothed in khaki that he was made a brigadier. Even in his leisure hours, Balchin found the time to be a skilled woodcarver, a talented musician, an authority on subjects including Oriental rugs and Norse sagas and a gifted sportsman adept enough to have played Minor Counties cricket for his native Wiltshire in his youth.

Aware of the nature of the website on which I am kindly guesting, I should point out that there are some links between Balchin and the crime genre. He was an ardent admirer of Conan Doyle, remarking on one occasion that “I don’t read detective stories […] except Sherlock Holmes”, and I believe that a scene in his excellent 1945 novel Mine Own Executioner may well be an homage to the Holmes story The Sign of Four. Balchin wrote a screenplay for the interesting fog-bound thriller Twenty-Three Paces to Baker Street (1956), a film based on a novel by crime writer Philip MacDonald, and, thirteen years later, penned the script for a murder mystery of his own devising, Better Dead, which was the subject of a blog in this same corner of cyberspace last year. The custodian of this site has the advantage of me here because I have to confess that I have never seen Better Dead, my excuse being that I was still a grizzling toddler when it was broadcast during the Apollo-landing summer of 1969!

Balchin’s finest novels (Darkness Falls from the Air, The Small Back Room, Mine Own Executioner, A Sort of Traitors, Sundry Creditors and The Fall of the Sparrow) deserve to earn him a place in the literary hall of fame. If my biography of Balchin succeeds in dragging him out of the shadows in which he has been lurking for the last fifty years and pushing him back towards the edge of the mainstream then I will be delighted. He is definitely worthy of renewed attention.

His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin by Derek Collett is published by SilverWood Books on 1 September."

Yes, it was seeing Better Dead that sparked my own youthful interest in Balchin. Wish I could trace the script..I echo what Derek has said about Mair's book, by the way. 

Friday, 21 August 2015

Forgotten Book - Called Back

A very, very long time ago,I reviewed Hugh Conway's novel Called Back for Geoff Bradley's magazine CADS. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoyed it all over again when I was asked to contribute an introduction to a welcome republication of the book by Harper Collins. It's just been published, and I hope that before long, it won't be possible to describe Called Back as a Forgotten Book any longer.

This novel was first published in 1883, so it preceded the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, although it post-dated the best work of Wilkie Collins. The storyline is admittedly very melodramatic. A blind man inadvertently stumbles across a murder - and when he later regains his sight, the plot thickens rapidly. As usual, I don't want to say too much about the detail of the mystery, but if you make allowances for when it was written, I think that - even though the contemporary comparisons of Conway to Collins were over-done - you will see why it did well. Fargus could tell a good story.

The book's impact was massive. Apparently over 300,000 copies were sold in twelve months, the story was adapted for the stage, and burlesque versions were produced. Conway's name was made. In fact, Hugh Conway was a pen-name adopted by Frederick Fargus. He was born in Bristol in 1848 (perhaps Crimefest should celebrate him?) but died at the age of 37 before he'd had enough time to show that he could sustain the story-telling promise of this book in the long term. A great pity.

Harper Collins have issued this book along with a couple of others, in a new Detective Story Club edition, with a facsimile of the jacket used when the book was published under the Club's imprint in 1929. The relaunch of the Detective Story Club follows Harper Collins' earlier success with the reissuing of Detection Club books such as The Floating Admiral and Ask a Policeman, and I'm very much hoping that this will prove to be a long-running venture. The more forgotten books that are made available for present day readers, the better, above all when they are lively affairs such as Called Back.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Away time - reading, writing and thinking

What is the best way for a writer to spend his or her holiday? Should one "switch off" from writing, seize the opportunity to do some reading, or carry on writing, on the basis that it's important to keep the momentum going? This is the sort of question, of course, to which there is no single answer, because so much depends on the personal attitude of the individual writer. But it's still a topic that interests me - I mused on it while I was sunning myself in Portugal recently - and I'm interested in the views of others.

I've seldom done any writing on holiday,and I certainly don't take a laptop with me. At most, I'll make a few notes, even when an idea for a story in the holiday destination springs to mind, as sometimes it does. I find that the sustained concentration I need to write simply isn't possible on holiday,and I don't even find it desirable to try to capture it. There's always a risk of ruining the holiday (a day job crisis once made a bit of a mess of a holiday of mine, about fifteen years ago, and I still recall it with regret.) Some writers go on "retreats" of one kind or another - Gladstone's Library is one popular and very tranquil choice - to get in some sustained writing, and I can certainly see the merit of that, but such retreats are not quite the same as a holiday in the sun (or the rain, if you're unlucky...)

But although I want to enjoy the break, I always like to read when the chance arises. And I read crime rather than getting away from it all with something completely different, simply because I like crime fiction so much, and to me it's a joy and never a hardship to read some of the many books I've never found time for previously. Going on a cruise is great for reading (even a river cruise, where there are no "sea days", and thus less free time), because there's something intensely pleasurable about sailing along, enjoying a good book in the company of ever changing scenery - or even an endless stretch of the ocean - and ,perhaps, later in the day, a glass of something from the bar. When I was in Portugal, I read several novels that will feature as Forgotten Books before long, and good fun they were.

But there's something else about being a writer on holiday. The chance to relax can be very helpful in liberating the mind. To take a specific example, I have for a while been tussling with a plot dilemma in the story idea I am working on for my next novel. Then, while wandering around Porto, the solution simply came to me, at a point when I wasn't consciously looking for it. A eureka moment. Having the luxury of time to think is really beneficial for a writer, in my opinion. And that's a luxury that a holiday affords.

But so much for my thoughts. What do you reckon?

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Astonishing bookshops and libraries

I'm back in Britain, acclimatising to the change in weather after a blissful holiday in Portugal, combining a stay in Lisbon with a cruise up the gorgeous River Douro. And while I was away, I enjoyed, among many other things, a visit to a contender for the title for "most beautiful bookshop in the world" and some amazing libraries.

Portugal's a country with a rich and proud history. The old empire has gone, and it's not the most prosperous place in the world, but the climate is fantastic and the local people I met were uniformly charming. They like their literature, too. While visiting the very appealing city of Porto, I discovered the ornate and unforgettable Lello bookstore. Surely there is no other bookshop in the world that can charge people three Euros just to go inside? A large part of the attraction is the shop's association with J.K.Rowling, who spent time there in her early days before achieving fame and fortune. I can see why she liked it (and why she liked Porto.) People were queuing to buy their tickets both in the morning and the afternoon when I was in the vicinity. You don't believe me? Well, here they are:


I also visited a trio of fantastic libraries during my trip. The first was at the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest and most distinguished academic institutions in the world. The library is stunning, though to protect the books, photography is not allowed. Suffice to say that it's one of the most impressive I've seen, in terms of beauty and grandeur. I was also amused by the existence of an ancient "academic prison" in the same building, which apparently was a sort of dungeon for student malefactors.

While on the Douro, we had a trip to a variety of places, including Salamanca in Spain (the Douro flows through Spain, but is not navigable beyond the border with Portugal, so you have to jump on a bus). Salamanca is breathtaking, and there is a modern public library in an architecturally spectacular setting - the photo is abov. Some people say it's the most beautiful public library in the world, and I certainly haven't seen a more stunning rival.

Another trip ended up at the Mateus Palace and its exceptional gardens, owned by the family responsible for Mateus Rose. (You can't visit Portugal without drinking quite a bit of wine and port, and some of the port in particular was of quite memorable quality.) Inside,the family's private library, which again cannot be photographed, is another sight to behold. Thousands of perfectly preserved old books. I  could have stayed there a very long time, even though I can't read Portuguese....

Monday, 17 August 2015

One million plus...

I'm just back from my travels, to discover that a little while ago, this blog had its one millionth page view. Like all statistics,this figure should be taken with a large dollop of salt. It doesn't include views or visits to the blog before the current stats started - some time after the blog began. On the other hand, each visitor may view a number of pages per visit. All the same, one million is a big number, and I'd like to say thanks to everyone who has supported this blog over the years. I'm especially grateful to those who have commented or emailed me about topics that I've featured.

How long will Do You Write Under Your Own Name? continue? I really don't know, but the short answer is that I plan to keep it going for as long as I continue to enjoy writing the posts - and one thing I can say is that at present I enjoy the blog as much as I've ever done. There are various reasons for this, one of which is that it's introduced me to a good many lovely people and activities. And it seems to do me good - for instance, I kept the blog going during the most difficult time of my life, five years ago, and it proved unexpectedly and significantly therapeutic.

The joy of writing is the key. I've always believed that writing should be a delight, not a chore. If I don't get pleasure from writing something, why should anyone take pleasure in reading it? Of course, I'm never totally satisfied with what I write, because a few days later I can usually think of a way in which I could have written it better, but that's a different matter. I like to think that readers of my Harry Devlin and Lake District novels buy into the fun that I have in writing the stories, and I'm very glad that reviews of The Golden Age of Murder have consistently picked up on the pleasure I take in the books I write about in that weighty tome.

At present, my plans for the future of the blog are to maintain the mix of subjects much as it is now. I'll talk about my own work from time to time, naturally,but there will be guest blogs, discussion of films and TV, the craft of writing and reviews of new and forgotten books, as well as thoughts about topics that I find interesting. And every now and then I'll seek feedback from you, my loyal readers, as I did recently with a question about the extent to which you are interested in the lives of authors as well as in their books. That's a subject that I do find really fascinating, and I will return to it in the future.

In the meantime, thanks again for all your encouragement over the years.  

Friday, 14 August 2015

Forgotten Book - The Documents in the Case

The Documents in the Case, first published in 1930, is in many ways an unusual book. It's the only novel that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in collaboration - with Robert Eustace. It's her only novel which does not feature Lord Peter Wimsey. And it's a novel that offers not only an interesting and unorthodox "howdunit" mystery, but also a fictionalised version of the Thompson-Bywaters case that fascinated a good many Golden Age novelists, not least Anthony Berkeley and E. M. Delafield.

Sayers is not by any stretch of the imagination a forgotten writer, but this is the one novel of hers that seems to me to have been generally under-valued. Perhaps it's the absence of Wimsey that accounts for the generally lukewarm critical reaction over the years (though I should add that a number of good judges have also praised the book.) Each time I read it, I find my appreciation of Sayers' skill increasing, even though, in the immediate aftermath of completing the book, she felt that she had failed to do justice to the clever idea at its heart.

In telling the story, she borrowed from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. Collins was a writer she greatly admired, and she was at the time she wrote the novel working on a biography of him that she never managed to complete. The events are seen from the point of view of characters in the story, and told in the form of letters. It's a very good device, when used well, and Sayers captures the different voices of the characters splendidly.

It's in the later part of the story, where the scientific material central to the plot is debated, that the narrative flags somewhat. Eustace contributed the scientific ingenuity here, as he did to stories by other writers such as L.T. Meade and Edgar Jepson, but Sayers did the writing. The method she chooses for conveying this material results in a rather abrupt ending, The problem with this section of the book is one of story structure, and I sense that she rushed those final pages, when with a slightly different approach she might have produced a book that would have been more widely acclaimed as an innovative masterpiece. Nevertheless, it's a novel of considerable interest and distinction, and if you aren't familiar with it, then it's definitely worth a read. There's a fascinating chapter about how the book was written, incidentally, in the late Barbara Reynolds' excellent biography of Sayers.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Exit by Helen Fitzgerald

The Exit, a novel of psychological suspense written by Helen Fitzgerald and published earlier this year by Faber, is one of the best contemporary crime novels I've read in quite a while. It's witty, clever and poignant by turns, and I enjoyed it despite the fact that, in the early pages, I took quite a strong dislike to the narrator, a self-absorbed young woman whose ageism was repellent.

It's a mark of Fitzgerald's literary kill that I warmed to her protagonist, just as I did - at least to some extent - to her extremely irritating mother, who is one of those control freaks who is convinced that she knows what is best for other people, even when, transparently, she does not. Control freaks make interesting studies for fiction, and I thought Fitzgerald did a very good job in showing the motivations of Catherine's mother, and the unintended consequences of her actions.

Catherine reluctantly takes a job in a local care home, and there she encounters an 82 year old woman called Rosie, who is convinced that there is dirty work afoot in the home. Since Rosie suffers from dementia, it is not easy to take what she says seriously, and here again Fitzgerald makes telling points about the way we treat people with impaired mental faculties. Of the three main women characters, Rosie was, for me, by far the most consistently appealing.

The mystery element of the story is relatively thin; it is not too difficult to figure out what is going on. But for me, perhaps untypically, that really didn't matter. The story is told in such a gripping way that I had to keep reading - though I'm not suggesting that such a dark novel will be everyone's cup of tea. I've never read Helen Fitzgerald before, and I've never met her, but she really can write. I wouldn't be surprised if this book picks up awards. Yes, it's that good.