Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Colin Dexter

I enjoyed the recently screened ITV3 documentary about Colin Dexter, which featured interviews with plenty of contemporary writers who expressed their enthusiasm for Colin’s work – enthusiasm which I’ve shared since the early days of his career. I remember his first Morse novel coming out while I was a student. If I’d stumped up for a hardback copy, it would have been far better as an investment than my jinxed pension plan.

Colin is an entertaining speaker, and I first heard him at a library event in Liverpool before I was a published writer. I mentioned recently his poignant after dinner speech at St Hilda’s, and he always exudes charm, as well as humour. I cherish a photograph taken outside the Oxford Museum a few years ago, in which a group of writers including Colin, myself and Anne Perry were snapped next to cardboard cut-outs of John Thaw and Kevin Whately – a souvenir of a very enjoyable day.

In the programme, Colin made the point that Morse possesses many of his creator’s characteristics. But the detective’s lack of generosity is something that Colin Dexter does not share. A few years ago, I was working on an anthology to celebrate the CWA’s Golden Jubilee, and I was keen to have a contribution from most of the genre’s luminaries. When I sent a message to Colin, asking if he was willing to come up with a new story, I was truly gratified to receive a phone call at home one Sunday morning, saying that he’d be glad to. And he was as good as his word. The story was called ‘The Double Crossing’ and it appeared in Mysterious Pleasures, which in sales terms is the most successful of the 16 anthologies I've edited.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Gone Baby Gone

Dennis Lehane is a very well regarded thriller writer, but I’ve never read a Lehane novel to the end, though I did start one of his early books about private eyes Kenzie and Genarro once and ran out of either time or enthusiasm. Clearly, I need to give him another try, since he is the author of the best-seller on which the movie Gone Baby Gone is based, and the more I watched, the more this film grew on me.

Kenzie and Genarro are played respectively by Casey Affleck (whose brother Ben is the director) and an intelligent, appealing actress I haven’t heard of previously, called Michelle Monaghan. Two first rate performances here. The pair are called in by the aunt of young girl who has been abducted from her feckless mother.

The police team hunting the girl is headed by Morgan Freeman, doing his usual impressive job as Captain Jack Doyle, whose own child was murdered some time back. Kenzie is deeply familiar with blue-collar Boston, and is persuaded (though Genarro is dubious) that his knowledge of the tough area where the girl lived, and its people, may help to solve the case.

But things go pear-shaped. The girl’s mother has been messing about with drug dealers, and eventually a plan to recover the girl falls apart, and it seems she has drowned in a water-filled quarry. But Kenzie can’t let the case go, and eventually his enquiries lead him to the truth. This is the point at which the film really takes off, posing a moral dilemma which divides Kenzie from Genarro, and threatens to destroy their relationship. Very thought-provoking. I believe I would have made the same choice that Kenzie did - but with many qualms.

Monday, 28 September 2009


When I watched an episode of Wallander, ‘The Castle Ruins’, the other day, I mused again on the tricky question of how many suspects a whodunit requires. It’s a question that occupies my mind quite a bit when writing a mystery, but it is also something that matters to me as a reader or viewer.

In this episode, the Swedish cop was investigating the murder of a scruffy chap who had just withdrawn a huge sum of money from his bank account. The victim had made his loot from selling land to be turned into a luxurious beach development. But not all the residents appreciated the unlovely bloke, especially since he hung around, along with his dogs, instead of doing the decent thing and leaving them to their upwardly mobile existences.

Further murders quickly occurred, and unfortunately they served only to confirm my initial suspicion about the culprit’s identity. But this was due to no great brilliance on my part – very few other viable suspects were left.

This is the challenge, then, for the writer. To include enough potential killers in the story to retain an element of surprise, but not so many that it becomes impossible to give them clearly differentiated characters. Agatha Christie had lots of suspects in many of her books, but Cards on the Table shows that she could still ring the changes cleverly even when she confined herself to a handful. This is a topic that fascinates me, and I’m sure that it provokes a range of opinions. What is the secret – if any – to getting the right number of suspects in a mystery?

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Christie, Christie, everywhere

Wherever you have turned lately, it has seemed impossible to escape Agatha Christie. But that’s all right by me, as reading Christie remains one of my favourite forms of escapism, and my complaint about the latest episode of Marple was simply its lack of fidelity to the Queen of Crime’s original plot.

I’m eagerly looking forward to a chance to read Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, the book by John Curran which has attracted so much attention. Curran is a real Christie buff, and I liked his list of top ten Christies. It was especially good to see the inclusion of Curtain, which is so often under-estimated. My own list wouldn’t be very different.

I think I would, however, probably substitute The Mysterious Affair at Styles for Crooked House, despite the daring nature of the solution in the latter. Styles is a terrific novel for a debut whodunit writer, remarkably intricate and assured.

But wait a minute. What about Cards on the Table, with its focus on just four suspects? Very clever. Or Towards Zero, in which murder comes at the end, not the beginning – a dazzling concept, executed in gripping style.

Wait a moment. I’ve forgotten Evil Under the Sun, a classic Poirot with a memorable island setting and cunning misdirection. And I couldn’t overlook The Pale Horse, which supposedly inspired a real-life killer. And then there is…

No, the problem with these lists is that, despite occasional misfires, some dodgy thrillers and the tired late novels, Christie wrote a startling number of ground-breaking stories. It is no accident that she has become a legend. As a crime writer, she is unique.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Grave Stones

It’s been a bumper year for Priscilla Masters, who has in a short space of time had two very different books published by Allison & Busby. I covered Buried in Clay in this blog a while back – it is a novel, essentially, of romantic suspense, rather different from her other work, no doubt because the original version was written quite some time ago.

When Cilla and I met at the St Hilda’s conference, she told me about her latest book, Grave Stones, and naturally I was eager to lay my hands on it – all the more so since it features Cilla’s most enduring character, DI Joanna Piercy. Joanna is one of the most human and likeable cops around, very credibly portrayed. At the start of this novel, she’s sunning herself on holiday in a bikini, at the end she is choosing what to wear for her wedding to the traditionally inclined Matthew. In between, she has to solve a pleasingly contrived mystery puzzle.

Jakob Grimshaw, a Staffordshire moorland farmer, is found with the back of his skull battered by a copestone taken from the wall marking the boundary between his land and Kathleen Weston’s. Grimshaw had recently raised funds by selling off land for housing development, and (as so often happens) this had caused a good deal of angst. Could resentment of Grimshaw explain why someone wanted him dead?

In fact, the solution is pretty intricate, and there is an appealing, and all too credible, ambiguity about one aspect of exactly what happened. But quite apart from the whodunit plot, readers will enjoy Priscilla Masters’ portrayal of the Staffordshire countryside, in particular in and around the town of Leek. It’s an area that she knows very well indeed, and her love of the landscape shines through. She understands what makes rural communities tick, and also the threats that they face in 21st century Britain. This is a novel with a number of agreeable ingredients which I hope will combine to earn it a great deal of acclaim.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Forgotten Book - The Second Curtain

Roy Fuller was a solicitor and a poet – and there aren’t many examples of that combination around. He was also an occasional crime novelist, and his The Second Curtain is my entry for today in Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books series.

Fuller, who died in 1991, probably achieved more distinction in the legal world (he became a director of Woolwich Building Society in the days when financial institutions were trustworthy and reliable) and as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. But his crime fiction was much praised by Julian Symons, a fellow poet as well as a legendary crime guru, although I think they were good friends, and of course one is always likely to support a friend’s writing – not so much nepotism, and human nature. I suspect it was Symons’ influence which saw this 1953 novel republished as a green Penguin paperback in 1976, which is when – as a student lawyer, and even an occasional poet, as well as a crime fan – I bought it.

But Symons would never praise someone undeserving (though some of his critical comments could seem rather harsh) and there is no doubt that Fuller could write. The Second Curtain is an under-stated novel which concerns George Garner, a minor novelist who is a touch complacent and only too pleased with himself when offered the editorship of a literary quarterly.

However, George writes to an old pal called Widgery, he receives a letter from the man’s sister, telling him that Widgery has mysteriously disappeared. George decides to look into the mystery, but he finds himself coming face to face with a dangerous world for which he is ill-suited. This isn’t a story where the hero rises courageously to every challenge, and some might find it anti-climactic. I think it’s a good character study, quietly yet intelligently put together.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Who Was Frederic Valmain?

One of the books I discovered in Hay-on-Wye was a novel I’d never heard of, by a writer unknown to me. But a glance at the back cover was enough to cause me to buy it. It was a paperback from 1965, a novel by Frederic Valmain called The Jackals (this copy does not disclose the original French title.)

The front cover bears an encomium from James Hadley Chase: ‘A book I can recommend for those who are looking for something new in suspense.’ Now, I’ve never read anything by Chase, and I’m not sure his work would appeal to me, but the back cover account of the plot – a young doctor is seduced by a woman who wants rid of her monstrous husband – suggests a story in the mould of some of the French novelists of suspense who worked at the same time as Valmain, and whom I admire: Boileau and Narcejac, Hubert Monteilhet, and Catherine Arley.

But who was the author? Initial researches have failed to reveal much, though Valmain obviously produced quite a lot of work, and some of it seems to have been filmed or televised. At least one internet site refers to him as a playwright. I consulted that great expert Xavier Lechard, but even Xavier didn’t know anything about Valmain. He told me that there was a belief that Valmain’s name was a pseudonym for a writer called Frederic Dard. But Valmain confounded that theory by giving an interview after Dard’s death. As Xavier said: ‘Valmain, as you can see, is thus a mystery writer in all meanings of the term.’

So do any of my knowledgable readers know anything about Valmain, or his work?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Victorian Villainies

Another book I picked up at Hay-on-Wye was Victorian Villainies, a book I first read not long after it came out in 1984. It’s an omnibus volume of four books, selected by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh, and with an introduction by Hugh. The brothers were very keen collectors of Victorian mysteries, and produced a rather rare bibliography of key titles. This omnibus was the product of their desire to give new life to forgotten tales.

Hugh laments in his introduction the disappearance of so many second hand bookshops. The trend has, of course, continued in the past quarter of a century. On the credit side, Hay has developed into a wonderful booktown, and now there are booktowns across Europe. And the internet (notably Abebooks and eBay) has made life easier in many ways for those seeking obscure titles.

Of the four books in the omnibus, the most renowned is The Beetle by Richard Marsh, and this is the story I remember best from my original reading. But another good one is In the Fog, by Richard Harding Davis, an American war correspondent who wrote no other detective fiction. The other titles are The Great Tontine, by Hawley Smart, which concerns ‘the unforeseen dangers of trying to make money in a lottery’ and The Rome Express, by Arthur Griffith.

One of my partners with an interest in crime fiction delightedly informed me the other day that he’d been asked to draft a tontine agreement. He asked me what was my favourite crime novel featuring a tontine and I mentioned The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’d forgotten Smart’s book all over again.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Edgar Allan Poe Club

One unexpected find on my recent visit to Hay-on-Wye was a curious piece of memorabilia – a menu for a dinner held by ‘The Edgar Allan Poe Club’ at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia on 19 January 1934. This was presumably a special, one-off event, for the date coincides with the 125th anniversary of Poe’s birth.

Reproduced on the back of the menu is Poe’s prospectus of 1840 for ‘The Penn Magazine’. There is also a list of luminaries ‘on the dais’ – in addition to a senator, a governor, a professor and various members of the Poe family, I spotted the name of Thornton Wilder.

With regard to Poe’s family, I met one of his descendants when I visited Philadelphia myself a decade or so ago. She was a mystery bookseller (the shop was called Poe’s Cousin) and she moderated a panel of which I was a member at Bouchercon. She was very pleasant and I was sorry to hear of her death a few years later.

Back to the dinner of 1934. The events of the evening included the dedication of the Poe house, and a performance of a ‘sequence’ called ‘The Raven’, with ‘Mr Eric Wilkinson at the Console’. The seven-course meal looks to have been pretty appetising, but I wonder what happened to the Edgar Allan Poe Club. Does it still exist?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Original Sinners and John Banville

I’ve included on my website a couple of new articles. One is the paper I wrote for the St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference, on the subject of Sinful Victims. Because of time limitations, I had to cut the paper short for actual delivery at the conference. So here is the full, unexpurgated version! It was fun to put together, and although at first I found the theme of ‘the wages of sin’ daunting, it proved to be a theme that generated a great deal of interesting discussion.

The other article is an interview with John Banville. I was commissioned to write the piece by Kate Stine, editor of that terrific crime magazine ‘Mystery Scene’. I didn’t meet Banville in person, but talked to him at length on the phone. Reserved at first, he gradually opened up, and I found him genuinely pleasant to deal with. Certainly not (despite recent publicity) someone who struck me as condescending to the crime genre – on the contrary, he waxed lyrical about certain writers, such as Simenon. He sent me a very gracious email about my writing which, if I had more nerve, I would cannibalise for a book cover quote. But I’m not that cheeky.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Making Hay

In the September sunshine, Hay-on-Wye was as appealing as ever yesterday. It was my first visit for eighteen months to the book town on the England-Wales border. I really have to ration myself, not least because I just don’t have the space at home to accommodate too many more books. But Hay does have an irresistible attraction as far as I’m concerned, and I did try to ration my purchases, with a degree of ‘success’.

My impression is that, since it became famous as a booktown, Hay has thrived economically. Whereas the streets of so many market towns in England and Wales have empty retail units and countless charity shops, Hay has plenty to offer quite apart from books. But books, of course, predominate. Even the half-ruined castle has been turned into a rather splendid bookshop – there could be no better use for an ancient monument!

As usual, I made a pilgrimage to the specialist crime shop, Murder and Mayhem, and also to the vast Cinema Bookshop, as well as a wide range of other haunts. One recent book I picked up was Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, which I’ve heard is pretty good.

My other purchases included an obscure (but apparently most intriguing) example of Eurocrime, and a rather fascinating piece of crime fiction- related memorabilia. More about these in future posts. And I hope that soon, Blogger, which has become mysteriously unco-operative, will allow me to upload some of the photos I took in the Hay sunshine yesterday!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Murder at the Saracen's Head

I spent last night with my family in a local pub called The Saracen’s Head, indulging in a murder mystery evening with an emphasis on forensic evidence. My son described it as ‘industrial espionage’ on my part, but I prefer to think of it as agreeable research, lubricated by a couple of drinks.

The Saracen’s Head is a rather old pub in Warburton which I last visited years ago, when my daughter had a birthday party there. It claims past associations with Dick Turpin and was a pretty good setting for the event – the mystery was one of a package supplied by an events company called Crimescene Nights.

This particular puzzle involved the sudden death of an actress just before curtain up on the night of a performance of Macbeth. The concept is that each table splits into two teams, one of forensic experts and the other of detectives, investigating separate sets of clues.

Like pub quiz nights (in my experience) this event was rather dragged out to encourage participants to keep returning to the bar. I’m not sure the story-line was quite strong enough to justify two and a half hours, especially as the culprit seemed obvious from her first appearance in the evidence files (though admittedly the team whose answers we marked concluded that the victim committed suicide, which definitely made me gape.) But it was a fun way to pass Friday night. And no, my team didn’t win!

Friday, 18 September 2009

Forgotten Book - In Stony Places

My entry this week for Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books is a title which dates back just 18 years. In Stony Places by Kay Mitchell was a follow-up to A Lively Form of Death, which came out the previous year in 1990, and which introduced Chief Inspector John Morrissey. He is a likeable chap, deftly yet economically characterised.

In this book, young girls are being murdered in Malminster, and Morrissey is faced ot only with the challenge of hunting down the killer (the only clue is mention in a diary of one of the victims of someone called Rob) but also of protecting his own family. It’s a taut story, relatively swift and short, and there is a touch of realism about the way chance plays a part in the apprehension of the culprit – shades, as Morrissey reflects, of the Yorkshire Ripper case.

I enjoyed this book when it first came out and I got to know Kay, and her husband, who during the early and mid 90s were regular attenders at CWA events in the north of England. Kay seemed destined for stardom – a good writer who had two series on the go once she started to write novels under the name of Sarah Lacey. But after five novels appeared under her own name, and five under Lacey’s, she blipped off the radar as far as crime fiction is concerned. A real shame, as I found her a very pleasant companion.

I haven’t heard of Kay for a long time, unfortunately, and she left the CWA some years ago, but I was reminded of her (and prompted to write this blog post) when asked the other day about her by a connoisseur of good crime fiction. He told me there is some uncertainty as to whether the final Lacey, File Under Justice, was actually published. Maybe readers of this blog know the answer – it’s not a book I ever came across. But In Stony Places is a testament to a significant talent.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Liverpool Reads

I spent an hour or so on Monday evening at the launch event for this year’s Liverpool Reads, a campaign to promote reading on Merseyside and beyond. The sort of event that deserves support, I think, and I was glad to see that a number of leading local organisations are giving it their backing.

The event took place at the Café Sports Express, which is in the increasingly impressive Liverpool One development. Even if you don’t like shopping (and I do like it) Liverpool One is a fascinating place, because the designers have cleverly integrated a large retail, living and business area with the existing cityscape, and linked it, by way of a renewed Chavasse Park, to the Albert Dock. So it’s very different from so many featureless malls. Café Sports Express is, someone told me, owned by the Liverpool footballer Jamie Carragher, although I didn’t manage to spot Carra in the crowd.

Liverpool Reads involves, this year, distributing no fewer than 20,000 free books – it’s a children’s story called Savage, written by David Almond and illustrated by David McKean. An ambitious project, then, led by The Reader Organisation, a registered charity which is based in Liverpool.

I had a chat with Jane Davis, the presiding genius behind The Reader Organisation. We’ve met occasionally over the years, when I’ve participated in events she’s organised. One that springs to mind was a workshop day at Alsager, near Crewe, seven or eight years ago. Another was a day of readings and workshops in Runcorn, which was the occasion when I first had the pleasure of meeting Sophie Hannah. She’d just published her first book and has gone on to great things since then. The Reader Organisation does a great job in bringing writers and readers together and fostering a love of literature, especially among the disadvantaged. Long may it continue to thrive.

Sophie, by the way, is due to appear at a crime panel at 4 pm on 27 September at the Chiswick Book Festival, to which I’ve been asked to give a plug. All tickets are available from Waterstone’s Booksellers, Chiswick W4 1PD. Tel: 020 8995 3559. Or the Chiswick Festival website:

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Bram Stoker

I’ve never been a regular reader of vampire books or watcher of vampire films, but when I read Dracula for the first time about twelve years ago, I enjoyed it much more than I expected. The first half of the book in particular is very gripping. And, of course, it appealed to my sense of humour that the Count had a copy of The Law List in his library, and that the hero, Jonathan Harker, is a lawyer himself.

When I came to write the seventh Harry Devlin novel, First Cut is the Deepest, which involves the apparent serial killing of Liverpool lawyers, and the stalking of Harry himself, I used various quotes from Dracula and references to the story to give my tale further texture. It was a book I enjoyed writing, and it was well received at the time, so I am very sorry that it is currently not in print.

When I was in Oxford for the St Hilda’s week-end, I was sorry to see that Waterfield’s, a nice second hand bookshop on the High, is closing down. They were holding a book sale and I picked up several titles, including a shortish book about Stoker by Andrew Maunder.

I found it enjoyable and interesting. Stoker worked from time to time on the fringes of our genre, and he claimed a strong friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle. The Mystery of the Sea involves cryptography, and it’s a tad surprising that it’s so little known. And Stoker is one of those writers who has produced at least one completely unexpected title – Duties of the Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland. Bet that one never troubled the best-seller lists.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Murder is Over-Complicated

The second episode of Marple saw a version of Murder is Easy, which was one of the first Agatha Christies I ever read, at a very tender age. I absolutely loved the story at the time, marvelling at the cleverness of the plot, and I still think it’s a really good whodunit, featuring an English village with a body count to rival Midsomer. The book doesn’t feature Jane Marple, as the detecting is done by Luke Fitzwilliam, but I very much enjoyed the first part of the tv episode, in which Fitzwilliam acts in effect as Miss Marple’s foil.

My enjoyment was enhanced by a splendid cast, with actors as likeable as Tim Brooke-Taylor, and as admirable as Sylvia Sims, taking relatively minor parts, as victims bumped off before anyone realises that a homicidal maniac is at work. The screenplay by Stephen Churchett had a number of neat touches, and Churchett himself appeared, as a coroner in a scene that didn’t really have a great deal of legal realism about it, although frankly that is par for the course with inquests in television shows.

Unfortunately, by the time we were about two-thirds in, the story began to falter alarmingly. I blame the fact that the writer had been asked to provide a script lasting for two hours rather than ninety minutes (back to a theme of yesterday!) So, to expand an already elaborate mystery, we had a young man with learning difficulties taught about sex with disastrous consequences, including incest, rape, abortion and murder. Needless to say, none of this bore any relationship to Christie’s original plot.

I think that if you want to improve on Christie’s plots when adapting her work, you have to be extremely good at plotting, and my feeling was that the whole edifice collapsed under the weight of its own implausibility. A pity, because again Julia McKenzie did well as Jane Marple - though I still can’t understand quite how she managed to insinuate herself into the heart of a strange community with such effortless ease and speed.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Lewis and Wallander

I don’t watch many television series these days, but I’ve seen quite a few episodes of both ‘Lewis’ and ‘Wallander’ (originally the Branagh series, now the rather different Swedish series) and this caused me to muse on the merits of both.

The episodes of ‘Lewis’ that I saw came from the last series. ‘The Allegory of Love’ was first rate, and up to the standard of all but the very best episodes of ‘Inspector Morse’. The story starts briefly with shots of a beautiful and mysterious young woman (Katia Winter) before moving to a book launch attended by Inspector Lewis. The book in question is a fantasy novel by handsome Dorian Crane (Tom Milsom) and it soon becomes apparent that his good looks, charm and all-round brilliance have attracted several admirers, and prompted much jealousy. At a regrettably early point, the beautiful young woman is murdered – but was she the killer’s intended victim?

As ever, the casting was excellent. The suspects included such fine actors as Art Malik and James Fox, and for a while I thought Lewis might find himself a new lady, but it was not to be. The plot was pleasingly convoluted, and though credibility was stretched, this was a price worth paying for a thoroughly entertaining story.

I’ve also just seen ‘The Great and the Good’ – this Lewis story benefited from a screenplay by Paul Rutman, who has written the script for the televised version of Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope novel Hidden Depths. Again, it was very enjoyable stuff, the excellence of the acting and the twists of the story-line compensating for the rather unlikely plot.

Across the North Sea, ‘The Tricksters’ also saw the hero-detective contemplating the possibility of an improvement to his love life, though Kurt Wallander enjoyed rather more amorous success than poor old Lewis after picking up a woman on a lonely forest road. For once, though, I thought that the story was not especially gripping. Two young girls discover the body of an apparently pleasant man with a love of horses. But he turns out not to have been pleasant after all. In theory, I prefer the length of the Wallander series (an hour and a half rather than the two hours allocated to Lewis’s investigations) but the simple truth is that the strength of each episode depends above all on the quality of the story.

Sunday, 13 September 2009


Some novelists indulge a good deal in foreshadowing, that is, giving hints about what is to come in their stories before it actually happens. Others, including me, do not. I’ve been thinking about this device recently, after reading Barbara Vine’s The Birthday Present, in which there is a great deal of foreshadowing.

The first chapter of the book is told by the brother-in-law of the key character, a sleazy MP. It introduces quickly quite a large cast of characters and before anything has happened, within the first three pages there are lines such as these:

‘The chances are that if she hadn’t agreed to provide a certain alibi, none of this would have happened.’

‘I’m putting in Jane Atherton’s diary. Not just some of it but the whole thing as it was sent to Juliet. Ivor’s history and come to that Hebe Furnal’s wouldn’t be complete without it.’

‘The mystery of which girl was the intended victim was never publicly solved.’

(After a snippet of recalled dialogue): ‘There was more of this but I’ll come back to it.’

I have to say that I found all this a bit bewildering and irksome, and, if I hadn’t been such a Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine fan, I might have given up at that point. Luckily, I didn't, and I do want to emphasise that I’m really glad I persevered, because I enjoyed the book, despite some flaws.

But I do think that foreshadowing is a device to be used with caution. In days gone by, the ‘Had I But Known’ school of writing was mercilessly mocked by the critics and I can understand why. Others may disagree, but for me, The Birthday Present shows that, even in the hands of a writer of genius, foreshadowing is a risky technique that is as likely to alienate readers as it is to intrigue them. However, I'd be interested in other people's views.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Disappearing Magazines

We’ve become sadly familiar with the experience of first-rate print magazines vanishing from the shelves, because of declining circulation. The biggest loss in recent years was probably that of Sherlock, a splendid magazine, which under the editorship of David Stuart Davies covered the whole world of crime fiction, not just Sherlockiana. But after several successful years, the owner lost heart. Unfortunately, the trend of disappearance isn’t confined to print publications. A couple of worthwhile ezine projects have faltered in the last year or so.

One was Cobwebby Bottles, produced by fellow author and blogger Rafe McGregor. This had a Sherlockian emphasis, and was really very promising. Now comes the news that Crime Fiction Gazette, the brainchild of rare book specialist and new novelist Paul Moy is also coming to an end after only two issues. A pity.

The snag is that producing print magazines takes a considerable financial investment, and even with ezines, there has to be a significant input of time and effort if the publication is to be sustained. It’s hard work, and I can well understand why those involved give up.

On a happier note, there are still various magazines available which do a terrific job of discussing the genre, and they deserve the support of crime fans everywhere. In the US, I can think of Mystery Scene, Deadly Pleasures, Give Me That Old-Time Detection and The Strand. In the UK, we have CADS, which I think is quite brilliant, and also excellent online resources such as Shots and Crime Time. I like all of them, and admire all the editors who do such a good job with them – but I’m sure there is room for fresh publications too.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Forgotten Book - The View from Daniel Pike

My entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books this time around is a collection of stories derived from a long ago television series that I never saw. My paperback edition of The View from Daniel Pike names both Edward Boyd and Bill Knox as authors on the cover, but the title page suggests that Bill wrote the book, based on scripts by Boyd. This chimes in with what I was told by Bill’s widow, whom I got to know after I completed Bill’s own final book, The Lazarus Widow.

I was recommended to try the book years ago by the editor of CADS, Geoff Bradley, who knows a decent crime story when he sees one. Daniel Pike was created in the early 70s by Boyd. He was a tough Glaswegian private eye, brought to life by Roddy McMillan. In all, 13 episodes were screened, although only five were adapted by Bill for the book.

Pike has what is described as ‘a bitter, almost resentful humanity’ which ‘sets him apart from the vicious world in which he earns his living.’ The first story, ‘Good Morning, Yesterday!’ is a special favourite of mine, but the others are certainly readable – Bill did his usual very professional job of crafting the stories from the scripts. All in all, this book is a good example of ‘Tartan Noir’, written long before that term was coined.

I’d like to see the tv series one day, to see if it has stood the test of time. However, I haven’t been able to trace a DVD version. Did anyone out there see any of it, all those years ago?

Thursday, 10 September 2009


Cleaner is a 2007 movie with an extremely good premise. Samuel L. Jackson plays Tom Cutler, a former cop who lives with his teenage daughter; his wife is dead and there is a hint of mystery about what happened to her. He now runs a business cleaning up death scenes with forensic precision. The opening of the film, where he describes his work in ghoulish terms to a group of people, is witty and gripping, if markedly different in tone from the rest of the film.

Things begin to go wrong when he is tasked to clean up the scene of a very messy shooting in a posh house. After the job is done, he starts to become suspicious and re-visits the scene the next day – to find a children’s party in progress, supervised by a glamorous blonde (played by Eva Mendes) who appears ignorant of the tragedy that has taken place in her own home. But it turns out that her husband is missing…

Tom starts to worry – with good cause – that he has been set up. We learn that he has secrets of his own from his days in the police, and it soon becomes evident that there has been widespread corruption. He isn’t sure whom he can trust, apart from his old mate, played by Ed Harris, and it is far from clear whether the victim’s wife is as innocent as she claims to be.

I enjoyed the film, although overall I wasn’t sure it lived up to its early promise. There wasn’t quite enough meat in the story, and perhaps too few interesting characters to render the plot twists unpredictable. But it’s well acted, and worth watching.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

E.C.R. Lorac

E.C.R. Lorac is a writer forgotten today by the general reading public, but enthused over by some fans of Golden Age detection, and avidly collected by a number of people. Her real name was Carol Rivett, and she also wrote as Carol Carnac. The quest for copies of her early books has meant that prices on the second hand market can be very high.

My parents were both keen on Lorac, and one story in particular, in which the curious features of Morecambe Bay played a vital part in the plot, was a favourite of theirs. I refer to it in one of the key scenes in The Serpent Pool, when Marc Amos is deliberating about his life with Hannah Scarlett.

I mentioned James M. Pickard’s catalogue of rare books the other day, and he features several highly obscure Lorac items. These include two unpublished novels. One is called Two-Way Murder, and was written under the name of Mary Le Bourne. The other, an unfinished novel, and possibly the one she was writing at the time she died, doesn’t have a title.

These are truly fascinating items which have a place in crime fiction history. The only snag is that their unique nature makes them very pricey, at £5,000 and £3,500 respectively. But I hope that whoever buys them could be persuaded to make the content of the stories more widely available to Lorac fans.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A Pocket Full of Rye

I was quite prepared not to like Julia McKenzie’s interpretation of Miss Jane Marple (or ‘Marple’ as ITV now calls her, for some reason) but I was pleased, and maybe a little surprised, that her debut in A Pocket Full of Rye proved to be a good performance in a well-made adaptation of an enjoyable story.

The screenplay was by Kevin Elyot, who is experienced in the art of Christie adaptation, and I thought it was impressive that he handled the final revelations in a wholly unmelodramatic way. I was a huge fan of the Joan Hickson series (and Hickson is the definitive Jane Marple) but the Hickson version of this story, in which Peter Davison played the villain, ended, as I recall, with a rather over-the-top climax.

In this version, the emphasis was on Miss Marple’s fondness for Gladys, the maid who was the unwitting tool of a ruthless killer, and her determination to see justice meted out to the man who destroyed her. This reflects, properly, Christie’s attitude to crime and punishment, and her concept of Jane Marple as a wise woman and a righter of wrongs. The whodunit mystery here is quite cleverly constructed, but there is a bit more to this particular story than the puzzle.

The production was a little slow at times – 90 minutes would have been better than two hours, I think. But the acting was good, and generally avoided the tongue-in-cheek, or the hamminess that ruined some of the episodes starring Geraldine McEwan as the spinster sleuth. Helen Baxendale was good as usual, and it was nice (although sad) to see the late Wendy Richard and the late Ken Campbell playing Mr and Mrs Crump.

Final verdict – on this evidence, McKenzie may turn out to be a distinct improvement on McEwan. I’ll be watching her again.

Monday, 7 September 2009

P.D. James and Victims

The latest Adam Dalgleish novel, The Private Patient, is published in paperback by Penguin on 24 September. It’s P.D. James’ 18th novel, and I read and enjoyed it upon publication last year. Apparently, it was a ‘top five bestseller in hardback’. I’m never quite sure about the definition of ‘bestseller’. I can even recall seeing promotional literature which has referred to a couple of my books as bestsellers, which in all honesty does require a bit of an imaginative leap. But one thing is for sure, P.D. James is genuinely a Premier League crime writer, and her sales must put her close to the top of any table.

The key figure in the book is Rhoda Gradwyn, a notorious investigative journalist. Her face is scarred, and as the blurb correctly, if rather melodramatically, puts it, the scar ‘was to be the death of her’. She checks into a private clinic for cosmetic surgery, only to meet her Maker in rather grim circumstances.

Rhoda is one of those characters whose life and behaviour provide plenty of people with reason to kill her. By detective fiction standards, she is a natural victim. This book was one of those that I covered in my recent paper at the St Hilda’s conference, dealing with ‘sinful victims’. Sinful victims, as I tried to show, are a staple of the genre, although I very much enjoy those books where the victim is apparently so blameless that there is a real mystery as to who would wish to kill them. Playing games with human motivation is one of the great challenges for whodunit writers, I think. The aim nowadays must be to come up with a solution to the game that does not defy credibility, and treats the players in the game as believable human beings.

P.D. James is very good at this, I think. The Private Patient is not by any means her best book (my choice would be Devices and Desires), and there are some parts of the closing section which I struggled with, but it’s nevertheless an excellent read. An incidental pleasure for me came with her references in the story-line to the late, great Cyril Hare, in whose footsteps she followed when she first signed up with Faber and Faber – which, remarkably, was not all that far short of half a century ago.

Sunday, 6 September 2009


When I was writing The Serpent Pool, I did quite a lot of research into the world of second hand book-dealing (Marc Amos, Hannah Scarlett’s partner, owns a bookshop in the Lakes.) Three of the experts I spoke to at different times were Jamie Sturgeon, and, at some length, Mark Sutcliffe of Ilkley, and James M Pickard. All were very helpful.

James’ latest catalogue has just been issued. It’s a limited edition in itself – just 100 copies printed; who knows, maybe in due course copies that survive will be worth loadsamoney in themselves. Meanwhile, it’s full of goodies, though for the most part, you’d have to be very well off indeed to go on a buying spree.

In terms of rarity, though, this is top of the range stuff. One item which took my eye is ‘The Greenshore Folly’, described as ‘the hand-typed manuscript of an uncollected and hitherto unpublished Poirot story. It is, apparently, the basis for the novel Dead Man’s Folly, but (confusingly) unconnected with an entirely separate Miss Marple story, ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’. The re-use of titles illustrates how often writers cannibalise their previous ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with such thriftiness.

James describes the item as ‘one of the rarest Agatha Christie manuscripts to have appeared on the market in many years’. I can imagine that is entirely right. So are you tempted? The only snag is, it will set you back twenty thousand quid….

The Incendiary's Trail

One of the books I took with me on holiday, but didn’t get round to reading, was a first novel by James McCreet, The Incendiary’s Trail. It’s part of the excellent Macmillan New Writing enterprise, which has already unearthed such talents as L.C. Tyler. My copy was borrowed by my son Jonathan, who liked the book so much that he has followed up his appraisal of Len’s latest with this review:

The Incendiary’s Trail begins in dramatic fashion with the discovery of a grisly murder in a dubious quarter of London. The case is lifted beyond the ordinary as the victims are part of a sideshow troupe: conjoined twins, and rapidly attracts the attention of the leering masses.

The unobtrusive narrator vividly depicts Victorian London and the fever which grips it as events escalate with arson and more murder. As pressure mounts on the fledgling Detective Force, the gloomy Sergeant Williamson must reconcile his drive for justice with pragmatism, and work with the enigmatic prisoner Noah Dyson. In pursuit of the culprit, he is forced to delve into London’s underworld and confront some of the most distasteful aspects of the era. The denouement matches the surreal and sensationalist theme of the book, with a masquerade and hot air balloon chase.

The lurid setting is essential to the novel as otherwise the elaborate plot might seem too outlandish. As it is, The Incendiary’s Trail is a fast-paced, enjoyable and memorable thriller.’

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Keith Waterhouse

I’m sorry that Keith Waterhouse has died. He was a notable journalist, and achieved success as a playwright, television writer and film screenplay writer. But for me, his finest work was Billy Liar, a novel I read when I was about the same age as Billy, and which I thought was absolutely wonderful. I thought I’d never read anything that seemed to have so much wit combined with poignancy. The book was filmed with Julie Christie, as well as Tom Courtenay, and as I was a great Julie Christie fan, that served to cement in my mind the idea that Billy Liar was a masterpiece.

I enjoyed Waterhouse’s other early novels, There is a Happy Land and Jubb, but after a brilliant start, Office Life rather disappointed me. So did his belated sequel to Billy Liar. Billy Liar on the Moon isn’t a bad book by any means, but somehow it lacks the zest of the early novel, and my feeling was that Waterhouse ran out of steam as a novelist after a brilliant start. In his later years at least he seemed more at home with the sprint of the regular newspaper column than with the marathon effort of a novel.

My mum loved his memoir, City Lights, especially because it turned out that he’d attended a school in Yorkshire where she’d taught. Whether she actually taught him, she couldn’t recall, but if she did, it might explain his fanatical enthusiasm for accurate punctuation. She wrote to him some years ago, but no answer came.

Keith Waterhouse didn’t get into crime writing, and I don’t’ know whether he was a big fan of the genre. But he did revive for television in the 80s Charters and Caldecott, those cricket-loving characters who first appeared in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. The pair were, as I recall, frustrated in their efforts to watch a Test Match at Old Trafford by a complete wash-out. Just like me, earlier this week, when the 20Twenty match in Manchester was abandoned without a ball bowled.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Playing With Bones

This has been an exceptionally busy summer, with more hospital visiting and less writing and reading than I anticipated some months back, and as a result, my list of things that I should have done but haven’t is nearly as long as my list of must-read books.

One of those must-reads is definitely Playing with Bones, by Kate Ellis. Published on 2 July by Piatkus, it is the second Joe Plantagenet mystery, set in Eborby (which bears a very close resemblance to York, a marvellous city which has also featured in a number of books by other crime-writing friends of mine, John Baker and Barbara Whitehead.)

As with Seeking the Dead (Joe’s first recorded case, which I covered in this blog a while back) there is an eerie feel to the story-line. Singmass Close has a sinister past, and is reputed to be haunted by children’s ghosts. In the 1950s, it was the hunting ground of the Doll Strangler, who was never brought to justice. When a teenager’s strangled corpse is found, Joe wonders if he is dealing with a copycat killer.

I really enjoyed Seeking the Dead, which had a characteristically clever plot designed to confound even determined whodunit-solvers like me. I’m looking forward very much to devouring Playing with Bones.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Kate Charles and Ludlow

A curtain-raiser before the Ludlow Castle mystery evening, in which I participated recently, was a welcome party at the home of the organiser of the event, Kate Charles. Kate lives a short walk away from the Castle, and as the weather was excellent, we were able to enjoy not only her hospitality but also her secluded and pretty garden.

Kate is American by birth, but a real Anglophile, and she has become a significant figure in the British crime writing world. At a relatively early stage of her writing career, she became Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association. That was the year in which, for the first time, I edited the CWA anthology. The book in question was called Perfectly Criminal, and Kate was kind enough not only to contribute a foreword, in which she argued eloquently for more recognition of the quality of contemporary crime writing, but also a short story called ‘Sheep’s Clothing'. She does not write many short stories, but that was one I certainly enjoyed.

Over the years, Kate has also chaired the Barbara Pym Society and, with Eileen Roberts, organised a good many crime and mystery conferences at St Hilda’s College as well as the Ludlow Castle events. She was telling me that she and her husband decided to move to Ludlow three years ago because they were not tied to any particular location in England, and could choose the place they thought most appealing. I have to say that many other people in their position would also be sure to pick Ludlow. It is a fascinating place, full of history and very attractive. And there are, famously, a good many decent restaurants there as well!

One of the great things about the crime fiction community is that you develop friendships over a period of years, meeting up from time to time at gigs and conferences. It’s a happy coincidence that nowadays Kate and I have the same publishers both in the UK and the US. And, given that the theme of the St Hilda’s conference this year was The Wages of Sin, it seemed entirely appropriate to take along my copy of Kate’s 2007 novel Secret Sins and ask her to inscribe it to me on a sunlit day in that most gorgeous of settings.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

A Varied Bunch

Pan Macmillan are one of the most interesting of those publishers who have a strong crime list. Over the years, Macmillan have published many excellent books, though I still mourn the passing of the excellent ‘Winter’s Crimes’ series of anthologies, and the fact that a number of really good writers have departed their ranks. However, I appreciate the way they have backed the work of Ann Cleeves over the years – with the impressive payback not only of the CWA Gold Dagger for her first Jimmy Perez book, but now also, as I reported the other day, an imminent television series featuring her other current detective, Vera Stanhope. It’s too often the case that publishers dump writers who don’t produce instant dividends, something that (needless to say!) I deprecate, and their faith in Ann has been more than repaid. I’m looking forward to her next Perez, Blue Lightning.

The diversity of the Macmillan list is is one of its real strengths. I’ve mentioned before my appreciation of their New Writing enterprise, which has yielded a number of real finds, and a review of James McCreet’s interesting debut novel The Incendiary’s Trail will appear here shortly. I also wanted to highlight some of their other new and forthcoming publications – they seem to be a varied bunch indeed.

Linda Castillo’s Sworn to Silence came out recently. It has a rural setting, the town of Painter’s Mill, where both Amish and non-Amish citizens live together, more or less in harmony – though sixteen years ago, the community was shocked by a series of brutal and unsolved murders. A young Amish girl, Kate Burkholder, left Painter’s Mill, but now returns as Chief of Police. Then another savage killing occurs…

David Hosp’s Among Thieves is described as ‘red-hot fiction rooted in stone cold fact’ and it is due to come out next year. The author is ‘a trial lawyer who finds time to write his novels on his daily commute by boat across Boston harbour’ (trying to think up stories while stuck in traffic on the Thelwall Viaduct just isn't the same, I can tell you) and is pitched at the John Grisham fan base.

Ryan David Jahn’s Acts of Violence is due to come out in November. It’s billed as ‘2009’s most unnerving literary thriller, based on 1964’s most notorious real-life murder’. Since Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were at their appalling work in 1964, you might assume from this that the source material is the Moors Murders, but in fact the crime in question is ‘the the famous murder case of Kitty Genovese, which was witnessed by 38 people who allegedly did nothing to help.’

Finally, Chelsea Cain’s Evil at Heart features murderous Gretchen Lowell and Detective Archie Sheridan, and is the latest entry in one of the most high-profile serial killer series. In this instalment, a spleen is discovered at a rest stop - which in itself gives you a fair idea of whether the rest of the story will or will not be to your taste…we are back here to the discussion of gruesomeness which prompted such fascinating comments from you last week.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Jessica Mann

I’ve been giving more thought to the discussion about gruesome crime fiction that we had the other day. It is always slightly unnerving when I read in the media about the latest real-life serial killer to be arrested – invariably, it turns out (horror of horrors!) that his home is full of books about murder. Of course, mine is too, even though I really don’t think I am that ghoulish, and my books certainly aren’t in the grisly mould of some current best-sellers.

Here is an interesting article by a notable reviewer, Jessica Mann, who has tired of gore. And I can well understand why. Jessica Mann’s own books are rather more sophisticated than those she has decided not to bother with in future. I’ve read several of them over the years, dating back to the days when I’d just started work and I haunted the local library, as book-buying was outside my budget.

One of her most notable books, however, is a non-fiction study of female crime writers, Deadlier Than the Male. This is full of interest, especially on the topic of the great ‘crime queens’ of the past. One of them is Josephine Tey, a class act who, although far from prolific, had many admirers at the recent St Hilda’s conference. From the discussion, it was clear that her work has stood the test of time better than most.

In her acknowledgements, Jessica Mann notes the assistance of that great Tey expert (and very agreeable crime writer) Catherine Aird, who was at the time working on a biography of Tey. Sadly, the book has never appeared. I’ve talked to Catherine about this project a few times over the years, and it’s by no means certain it will ever see the light of day. But I hope it will, eventually.