Friday, 20 April 2018

Forgotten Book - The Tin Tree

I've been musing recently on the impact that the First World War had on detective fiction, and among other things this led me to read The Tin Tree by James Quince, a book that's been on my TBR pile for a while now. Quince's pen-name masked the identity of J.R. Spittall, who signed my copy; he was a clergyman, and his career as a crime writer was quite brief, extending to a mere three novels.

The Tin Tree was the first, and it's a curious book. The opening scenes capture, very effectively in my opinion, the grim reality of soldiering during the First World War, as well as the eerie foggy environment surrounding the eponymous tin tree. The tree, built by the French army, was an observation post, with a ladder inside its trunk, and a platform "commanding an excellent view of the German lines".

The narrator of the story rejoices in the name of Roger Budockshed, although he's nicknamed, equally improbably, Secco - after Seccotine, which apparently is a brand of refined liquid fish glue. He is puzzled by a gunner called Rachelson, who is something of a mystery man. Eventually Rachelson confides in him, explaining that his real name is Montaubon, and that he's begun a new life after going on the run, following a murder in which he was the prime suspect.

It's an interesting set-up, but the story meanders quite a lot after that before reaching a twisty and pleasing climax that anticipates (in a sense) the plot-line of one of Agatha Christie's radio plays; both Quince's story and Christie's are based on the same classic precedent. The fact that the story sags in the middle is the mark of an inexperienced novelist, but Quince was a capable writer, and there is enough here to make it worth persevering, despite the longeurs.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

"Catch of the Day"



It's not often that my fiction appears in close proximity to that of the great Ben Okri (well, it's never happened before, if I'm honest), so you can imagine that I'm very happy to find my brand new short story appearing alongside one of his (and others by the likes of Sophie Hannah and Elly Griffiths). "Catch of the Day" is one of six stories to be found in Skald, an exciting and innovative collection produced by Audible.


The story behind my involvement with this collection is unusual. It goes back to March last year, when I took part in the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai. Among other things, I was interviewed with Rob Davies about Golden Age fiction and the British Library Crime Classics. Ellah Wakatama Allfrey proved to be an excellent interviewer, and it all went swimmingly. And shortly after my trip to the Festival, I set off for Honolulu, for Left Coast Crime. Because Hawaii is so far away, it made sense to expand my stay there, and I spent a few days on each of three very attractive islands, Oahu, Kauai, and Maui.


I had in mind, as I always do on these trips, that I'd soak up the local atmosphere, and research the places I visited, in the hope that an idea for a work of fiction of some kind would come along. And so it did. In fact, quite a few possible plotlines hopped into my mind, and before long, I started to sketch out a mystery set on Kauai, an island which I found entrancing. I decided it should be a first person narrative, told by a local driver, as I'd picked up quite a bit of background colour from drivers I met.


Then, out of the blue, Ellah came back into my life with news of the Audible project, and a commission for a new story with a theme of "discovery". She liked the concept of "Catch of the Day", and this spurred me into action. I found her editorial input extremely valuable, and I'm pleased with the resultant story. The photos illustrating in the post were all taken in Kauai and all feature locations mentioned in the story - except for the photo at the end, taken at the Emirates Literature Festival interview.


I'm trying, as a crime writer, to develop my skills and to stretch in fresh directions. This seems to me to be the best way to try to enthuse an increasing number of readers. I've been publishing fiction for a long time, but you can always improve, and this is what I keep aiming to do. And it certainly helps when you have a good and sympathetic editor. I'll never be a Ben Okri, admittedly, but after years of striving, I do feel that my fiction is moving in a more exciting direction than ever before. More news on that front shortly, I hope!   


Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Roderic Jeffries R.I.P.

I've just been told that the crime writer Roderic Jeffries, who also wrote as Jeffrey Ashford and Peter Alding, died last year at the age of 90. He'd been living in Mallorca for over forty years, which perhaps explains not only why I've never come across him in person but also why his books have tended, in recent years, to be rather overlooked.

Jeffries was a prolific crime writer, as was his father, Bruce Graeme (whose real name was Graham Montague Jeffries). Graeme, a leading light in the Crime Writers' Association during its formative years, and a good friend of the CWA founder John Creasey, wrote a wide range of mysteries, but was best known as the creator of Blackshirt, a Robin Hood type of character, and Roderic wrote a number of Blackshirt novels himself in the Fifties and Sixties, as Roderic Graeme.

Roderic spent a few years in the legal profession, practising as a barrister, and this gave him material for some of his early crime novels from 1960 onwards. Many of his books appeared under the legendary Collins Crime Club imprint, which, like the Gollancz yellow dustjacket, was in the Sixties and for many years before a brand associated with reliable writers who were library favourites (not to mention stars such as Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard, both of whom were ten years younger than Roderic). More recently, his work has been published by Severn House, a company which has filled the gap left by the disappearance of the Crime Club and Gollancz imprints very effectively.

Mistakenly in Mallorca, which appeared in 1974, introduced Inspector Enrique Alvarez, who became a very long-running series character indeed. The only interview I've come across featuring Roderic is to be found here on the blog of J. Sydney Jones.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Shrewsbury and the CWA conference

I've just returned from Shrewsbury after an exhilarating weekend. It was the CWA's annual conference, an event I've rarely missed over the past thirty years. The setting was lovely - the ancient town is crammed with history and interest, and the Lion Hotel, whose previous guests have included Darwin, de Quincey and Paganini, was a splendidly historic venue.

The speakers included the legendary investigative psychologist David Canter, author of the Gold Dagger-winning Criminal Shadows, who shared many insights about the pros and cons of offender profiling. A psychiatrist explored the way that her discipline can contribute to cutting edge fiction. A forensic expert cleverly updated us on latest forensic techniques, and how they might be used in solving The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. There were talks about Ellis Peters, and about marketing books in the modern age. A leading scientific advisor to government was the after dinner speaker. And there was much more besides...

Quite a bit of alcohol was quaffed, and we also had a visit to Tanners' ancient wine cellars, again fascinating and historic. A ghost tour around the town was followed by a trip to the castle and the amazing public library, where an extremely old building which once housed Shrewsbury School has been cleverly integrated into a modern facility. I've never seen a library like it. There was also a book-signing at Waterstones.

It was great fun to catch up with old friends and also to meet many of the CWA's newer members, such as playwright Derek Webb, novelists Stephen Norman and Jo Summers, and human rights campaigner Stephen Jakobi. Great credit goes to Cilla Masters for organising things with such verve, and to Dea Parkin for all her support work. As for the CWA's AGM, it was a well-attended forum for lively debate and some very good exchanges of ideas for the future. And the upshot is that I've been re-elected as Chair of the CWA for a further (and definitely, definitely final) twelve-month term. It's a great honour to lead such a thriving and fun organisation. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

Forgotten Book - Death Knocks Three Times

Lucy Malleson was an interesting and capable writer who enjoyed a good deal of success without ever, really "breaking through" into the literary big-time. After her death in 1973, her work quickly faded from view, but she'd had a long career, writing under a variety of pen-names: J. Kilmeny Keith, Anthony Gilbert, and Anne Meredith. The Gilbert name became the best-known, but last year I was delighted to write an introduction for her first Anne Meredith novel, Portrait of a Murderer, when it became the Christmas title for the British Library's Crime Classics series. The book did well- so well, in fact, that although the main focus was on the paperback edition, I gather that the hardback edition swiftly sold more copies than the original first edition! Who would have expected that?

I've read a few of the Anthony Gilbert titles over the years, and I've had mixed feelings about them. She was a capable writer, and she had the important strength of caring about her work which meant that she was not content to stick rigidly to a single storytelling formula. Her main protagonist, Arthur Crook, is a rascally solicitor, so you might think he has a particular appeal for me, but in truth I'm not much of a Crook fan. Sometimes he seems to get in the way of the story, and to me, it's no surprise that a good film made of one of her books, My Name is Julia Ross cut him out of the storyline altogether. So did the remake, Dead of Winter.

All of which brings me to Death Knocks Three Times, a novel she published in 1949. The date is significant, because a key element of the story is the period setting: we really get a feel of life in post-war austerity Britain, although some of the political comments seem a bit delphic to a modern reader. The story begins, like others such as The Nine Tailors, with the detective hero - if one can call Crook a hero - stuck in the middle of a car journey due to bad weather, and taking refuge somewhere just before a mysterious sudden death occurs.

It's not quite clear whether murder has taken place (though the reader will suspect it has...) and the action then shifts to a sequence of poison pen letters, sent to a rather unpleasant elderly lady, who summons help from another woman, who is very nicely characterised and whose name is Frances Pettigrew (was Gilbert referencing Cyril Hare's Francis Pettigrew? Given the number of literary and specifically crime fiction allusions in the book, it is possible). Anyway, as the book title suggests, two more deaths fall to be considered, but an unusual air of mystery pervades the story. It's far from clear what is really going on until Crook comes up with an explanation - which, to be honest, I didn't find wholly satisfying, especially in relation to the first death. 

This is a novel that has earned rave reviews from good judges such as John Norris. For my part, I admired Gilbert's ambition, and her attempt to do something different and unusual, but I felt that the narrative was too diffuse to be altogether successful, and Crook's muted role also felt rather unsatisfactory. An interesting book, though, and despite my reservations I'm glad I read it.


Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Tenth Man - DVD review

The Tenth Man was originally written by Graham Greene as a film script. Abandoned for many years, it became a TV screenplay, directed by Jack Gold (whose work included Praying Mantis, a terrific thriller which I'd love to see again). I missed the TV broadcast thirty years ago, but caught up with it on DVD recently, and felt that it put many films to shame, in terms of casting, production values, and emotional impact.

Anthony Hopkins plays Chaval, a rich and selfish lawyer in occupied France, who one day in 1941 is picked up by the Nazis and thrown into jail. They used to pick hostages at random off the street, and execute a handful of them every now and then in an attempt to terrorise people into submission. A pivotal moment occurs when it's announced that one in ten of the men in jail are to be shot. Lots are drawn, and Chaval is unlucky. But he persuades a fellow prisoner to be executed in his place, in return for the gift of his home and possessions, which the prisoner intends to leave to his mother and sister.

When the war ends, Chaval is freed, but has no money. He makes his way back to his old home, and inveigles himself into the household, using a false identity. He finds that the sister (Kristin Scott Thomas) has been waiting for Chaval's return, because she wants to kill him for being, in effect, responsible for her brother's death. Slowly, a bond forms between him and the sister. All goes well until one day a stranger arrives (played by Derek Jacobi), claiming to be Chaval...

The story is a strong one, and the game-playing about identities works very well. The quality of the acting from the three charismatic stars, and of Gold's direction, is impressive. I find it astonishing that this script was apparently forgotten for so many years; I'm a Greene fan, and I think The Tenth Man ranks with his best work.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Black Widow - 1954 film review

Black Widow is a popular title for crime films. The one I'm discussing today showed up recently on the wonderful Talking Pictures TV channel. I've made many fascinating discoveries thanks to Talking Pictures. As with forgotten books, there are some forgotten movies that really ought to be left in peace. But Black Widow, I was delighted to find, is based on the book of the same name by Patrick Quentin. I've read quite a lot of Quentin books (and novels by the PQ alter ego, Q. Patrick) and they are invariably well-plotted. Black Widow is no exception.

The film was made in Cinemascope, and the bright colours slightly distract from the darkness of the storyline. It's almost a film noir in mood, if not in look. The cast is very strong, with Van Heflin, a dependable performer, playing the hero, Peter Denver (in the books, Peter Duluth - was that surname deemed "too difficult" for audiences of the time?) At the start of the film, Peter is waving goodbye to his beloved wife Iris (Gene Tierney) at the airport. She's off to look after her sick mother, and she urges him to show his face at a party thrown by an actress who is starring in Peter's current show, and who lives in the same block as the Denvers.

The actress is "Lottie" Marin, played by Ginger Rogers (who doesn't dance in this story.) She's a famously unkind woman with a huge ego and a sharp tongue. Her husband Brian (Reginald Gardiner) is a weak character who allows her to bully him. At the party, Peter meets a young woman, Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner) and they become friends. Their relationship is platonic, but Peter invites her to stay in his apartment while Iris is away, and on the day of her return, Nancy is found there, dead. It appears to be a case of suicide, but soon questions arise. Is it possible that Peter has killed her?

The plot is pleasingly convoluted, although I found Nancy's psychology slightly baffling. Peter, naturally, tries to find out what is going on, but the official detective work is undertaken by a cop played by George Raft, whom one associates more with gangster roles. Even as a detective, he is pretty menacing. The film wasn't a huge box office hit, but it's worn pretty well, mainly because of the cast and the strength of the plot twists. Overall, definitely worth watching.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Forgotten Book - The Rynox Mystery


Image result for rynox philip macdonald

Philip Macdonald was one of the breezy entertainers of the Golden Age, an author with a flair for coming up with enticing scenarios. The republication of The Rynox Mystery in the Detective Story Club reprint series gives present day readers a chance to appreciate one of his most appealing set-ups. The book begins with an epilogue, a device used in other crime novels (for instance C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High). But I can't think right now of an example that predates this one, from 1930.

In the epilogue, two large and heavy sacks are delivered to the offices of an insurance company. When the unexpected delivery is opened, it turns out that the sacks contain more than a quarter of a million pounds. A lot of money today, never mind in 1930. What's the meaning of it? We go back in time to find out, and Macdonald presents his chapters as "reels"; no wonder he later moved to Hollywood.
This is a light thriller rather than a whodunit, and it's short and snappy if at times a little too whimsical.

The puzzle concerns the misadventures of a company called Rynox, and the demise of its presiding genius. The identity of the killer appears obvious, but the police struggle to identify him. What is going on? Well, I think most astute readers will figure out the answer, but not to worry. It's not a bad story, and this edition benefits from an intro written by Macdonald himself in the 60s, which I found interesting. He explains that he was aiming to satirise a number of people and institutions, though I'm afraid some of the point of the satire has been lost due to the passage of time.

Another extremely pleasing touch, given that the novel is a short one, is that Harper Collins have added value by including the one and only short story to feature Macdonald's Great Detective, Colonel Anthony Gethryn (who doesn't feature in the novel). The story is called "The Wood-for-the-Trees", and it's a serial killer mystery, with a plot device that crime fans will associate with a rather famous novel.


Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Hell is a City - 1960 film review

Of all the black and white British cop films of the 50s and early 60s, Hell is a City stands out. There were some other good police movies, certainly, but this one, directed by Val Guest, is excellent from start to finish. There are two reasons for this.

First, the source material. The film was based on Somewhere in the City, a novel by Maurice Procter, who had been a serving police officer before his writing career took off. Procter's books were authentic, and this authenticity is, thankfully, preserved in the movie version. I've been a Procter fan for a long time, and about twenty years ago, I wrote an intro for another of his books, The Midnight Plumber, which features Harry Martineau, as this story does. The late Peter Walker, another cop who became a crime writer, told me that Procter encouraged him to join the CWA back in the 60s. They never actually met, but Peter took the advice and went on to become Chair of the CWA.

Second, the acting. The cast is excellent, and the brilliant Stanley Baker is ideally suited to the role of Martineau, who is married, but not very happily, to the equally discontented Maxine Audley. Billie Whitelaw makes a brief but telling contribution as an ex girlfriend of the killer on the run whom Martineau is hunting, and her husband is played by Donald Pleasence, taking a meek rather than sinister role for once. Joby Blanchard, who starred in Doomwatch, is one of the bad guys, and George A. Cooper, Warren Mitchell, Russell Napier, and even John Comer and Doris ("Annie Walker") Speed in very small parts, all contribute.

The story is a simple one. It's a manhunt, and we're never in doubt that Martineau will get his man. But Val Guest's screenplay compels interest from start to finish, and although Stanley Black's jazzy soundtrack is occasionally intrusive, overall it adds to the atmosphere. The scenes on the moors north east of Manchester, which a few years later would become associated with Brady and Hindley, also make an atmospheric background to key parts of the film. Recommended.

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena - book review


Image result for shari lapena

The Couple Next Door is a bestselling novel of psychological suspense by Shari Lapena, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in the whirl of the Toronto Bouchercon last year. Shari, who is herself based in Toronto, is a former lawyer, and I've always particularly enjoyed reading the crime fiction of legal eagles who have managed to fly away from the desk, the computer, and the clients for long enough to write a novel.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm a long-term fan of novels of psychological suspense, and when I read them, I find myself not only enjoying the story (assuming it's a good one) but also of studying the approach taken by the writer - whether it's Patricia Highsmith or Celia Fremlin in days gone by, or Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn today. For instance, a key decision is whether to opt for a first person narrative, or a third person single viewpoint narrative. Shari Lapena has chosen the third person multiple viewpoint method, and it's a choice well-suited to her plot. A key reason why it works so well is that it enables her to shift suspicion around a small cast of characters in a very effective way.

In a nutshell, this is a "baby in jeopardy" thriller.  Anne and Marco have been invited round to dinner by Graham and Cynthia, the couple next door, and have unwisely succumbed to pressure from Cynthia to leave their tiny daughter Cora at home, checking on her regularly. You can guess what's coming, can't you?

It's a long time since my own children were as small as Cora, but anyone who's been a parent can, I think, empathise with the terror of Anne and Marco as their life together rapidly falls apart, with Cora missing, and the police deeply suspicious that one or both of them may be implicated in the kidnap. Losing your child is really a parent's worst nightmare. At least Anne's own parents are rich enough to be able to afford to pay a ransom demand, but is that really such a good idea? The moral dilemmas come thick and fast, and so do the plot twists. This is a pacy, action-packed thriller, brimming with suspense. No wonder it's achieved such success.