Saturday, 31 October 2009

Back to the Lakes

It seemed like a good idea to take a couple of days off work, for a combined research trip plus pick-me-up. The Lake District really is a wonderful place in which to unwind (as well as a perfect setting for murder mysteries!), and although my trip was all too brief, I felt much the better for it.

We stayed in Keswick, a small town full of charm and character which has not yet featured in the Lake District Mysteries – but soon will! Its setting is magnificent. The bulk of Blencathra isn’t far away, while Derwentwater is a stroll away from the market square.

I’m a great fan of boat trips, and since the weather was good, it was an ideal time for me to have my first sail on Derwentwater, in the launch that travels around the lake, making brief stops at various jetties. It really was quite an idyllic experience, and after the gloom of missing out on the Dagger Awards and a gig in Harrogate last week, it cheered me up no end.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Forgotten Book - The Man Who Killed Himself

My admiration for the late Julian Symons is almost unbounded, and my latest contribution to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a novel he published in 1967, The Man Who Killed Himself.

This is a novel that I read perhaps three years after it first appeared. Symons was one of the first contemporary crime writers whom I read after I ran out of Agatha Christies to devour. Now, some may say that Symons, an advocate of the ‘psychological crime novel’ had little in common with Christie as a writer. But although they belonged to different generations, and had different literary preoccupations, Symons could plot quite brilliantly, and the plot of The Man Who Killed Himself really gripped the youthful Martin Edwards.

It’s the story of a timid, hen-pecked man called Arthur Brownjohn, who metamorphoses into the caddish Major Easonby Mellon. It’s a means of escape for him. But when murder occurs, the double identity seems to offer not merely escape, but salvation.

The opening line is: ‘In the end Arthur Brownjohn killed himself, but in the beginning he made up his mind to murder his wife.’ Symons is strong on irony – you might almost say that this book is a Sixties update of Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles (which I first read around the same time), though there are many differences in the story-lines. Like Iles, Symons tends not to go in for too many sympathetic characters, and some readers find this off-putting. But I thought this was a clever book when I first devoured it, and I haven’t changed my mind since.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Ripley and Gorse

The first book in the Patrick Hamilton’s Gorse trilogy, part of which sourced the excellent tv series The Charmer, was The West Pier. Graham Greene generously described it as ‘the best book written about Brighton’. It was published in 1951, and was followed by Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1953) and Unknown Assailant (1955). The series was actually meant to be a quartet, but the fourth book never appeared.

These were the last books written by Hamilton, who is better known as the playwright who wrote Gaslight and the Hitchcock-filmed Rope. He remains a cult favourite as a novelist, with many prominent admirers, though his life ended in 1962 (when he was only 58) in misery and alcoholism. The sourness with which he viewed life when he wrote the books is reflected in the character of Gorse, a man wholly without consicence.

I wonder if Patricia Highsmith read Hamilton before she created Tom Ripley – whose first appearance was in 1955. Of course, there are many differences between the two men, but there are also similarities. They are superficially charming, and can behave in an attractive manner, but their only real concern is themselves.

The fact that both characters first appeared within four years of each other is fascinating, regardless of whether Highsmith knew of Hamilton’s work (he isn’t mentioned in her exhaustive biography). It’s quite common for two different writers to come up with ideas that seem similar, independently of each other. Something in the ethos of the times, perhaps. There are suggestions, for instance, that Hamilton was influenced by the crimes of Neville Heath in his creation of Gorse, and I think that is possible (gorse, heath, get it?) although some have suggested that the fact that the stories are set before Heath started his crime spree means that a likelier inspiration for Gorse was Smith, the Brides in the Bath murderer.

I’m not aware of any critic of the genre who has made any sort of a connection between Gorse and Ripley – perhaps it might be said that there isn’t much of a connection to be made. But I can’t think off-hand of any series protagonists before this odd couple who display so clearly the grim conscienceless of the sociopath, however apparently affable, that has proved such fertile ground for modern writers such as Ruth Rendell.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Medbury Fort Murder

Some months back, Bob Adey recommended a ‘locked room’ mystery to me dating from 1929 and called The Medbury Fort Murder; he also supplied me with a copy. The book was written by George Linnelius, a writer of whom I’ve never heard, and so far I’m afraid I have failed to get round to reading it.

But I was reminded to dig it out of the to-be-read pile by the arrival of the latest issue of Arthur Vidro’s excellent fanzine Give Me That Old-Time Detection. The cover reproduces, in black and white, the dust jacket of the book and it looks rather entertaining (‘Lieutenant Lepean had loved too many women so early one morning…’ ‘At least a dozen men wanted to kill Lt. Lepean – which one murdered him in a locked room?’)

The book features in a fascinatinglist of favourite impossible crime stories which Bob himself has contributed to the magazine. As ever, his comments are concise and instructive. There are plenty of other good things in this issue, which is perhaps the best I’ve seen to date. There are some pithy reviews, including several by Charles Shibuk, a demanding but perceptive commentator, and a long instalment in Marv Lachman’s series of articles about stage plays with a criminal element. There’s also a very welcome piece by the Agatha Christie expert John Curran.

This type of publication is a labour of love, and Arthur Vidro, whom I had the pleasure of meeting briefly when I was in the States a year ago, is really getting into his stride now as editor. Along with its British cousin CADS, this magazine flies the flag for otherwise forgotten Golden Age mysteries with great enthusiasm (and intelligence, as you would expect from a publication associated with Mensa.) Long may it continue to flourish.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Murderland again

The second episode of the three-parter starring the excellent Robbie Coltrane has just been shown. In David Pirie’s crime drama, Coltrane plays Hain, a discredited yet appealing cop whose lover worked as a part-time prostitute and was found stabbed to death in her home not long after he’d paid her a visit.

The first episode showed events from the perspective of Carrie, the victim’s daughter. This time, the focus was on the perspective of Hain. Whilst the sequence of events from the past unfolded, we also saw Carrie, now grown up and searching the solution to the mystery before she commits to a new life, calling on Hain and trying to find out more.

In fact, she didn’t find out much. We learned a little more about other potential suspects, but forward movement in the story-line was limited. A number of the scenes we saw last week were repeated, and even though sometimes different camera angles were used, I felt that we went over too much old ground. It felt rather like padding, when I could have done with more story.

The idea of telling a murder story from different points of view is very appealing. It’s been done in plenty of novels, sometimes very cleverly, and I’d rather like to have a go at it myself one day. But the brilliance of the film Vantage Point, for instance, is certainly missing from the construction of Murderland. So far, at any rate. I will withhold final judgment until next week’s episode. The acting is very good, and the mystery-solving tug sufficient to entice me to tune in to find out whodunit.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Charmer

The sole benefit of an enforced break has been the chance to watch a few DVDs I’ve never found time for in the endless rush of everyday life. And I really did admire The Charmer, an ITV series that I missed when it was first shown 22 years ago.

The Charmer is divided into six episodes, 50 minutes each, and features Nigel Havers cast successfully against type as Ralph Ernest Gorse. Havers is a light and likeable actor, but although Gorse has a good deal of superficial charm, in truth he is a cold and calculating sociopath, a man with no money but a burning desire to enjoy pleasures beyond his means.. He allows nothing and nobody to stand in his way.

At the start, Gorse sets his sight on an affluent widow with a fondness for drink, brilliantly played by Rosemary Leach. She is flattered by his attentions, provoking intense jealousy on the part of an unappealing estate agent called Donald Stimpson, equally well played by Bernard Hepton. Stimpson is infuriated when the woman who has fobbed him off for years sleeps with the glamorous younger man, and his determination to exact revenge on Gorse is a driving force of the story-line.

As the plot becomes increasingly complex and dark, Gorse seduces and marries the daughter of a rather thuggish Brighton car dealer played by George Baker – yes, Inspector Wexford himself! Gorse kills the girl, accidentally, while burning down their house in an insurance scam, but soon gets involved with another widow, played by Judy Parfitt. But Stimpson is on his trail…

The screenplay is by Allan Prior, who was involved with Troy Kennedy Martin (who died recently) in starting that seminal cop show Z Cars. (Trivia buffs might like to know his daughter is Maddy Prior, the singer from Steeleye Span.) The source material for the scripts was extracted from the books that Patrick Hamilton wrote about Gorse. The incidents in the books are somewhat different, but The Charmer is a real success, which can still be viewed with a great deal of pleasure a generation after it was made. Hamilton was a fascinating writer, by the way, and I’ll say more about him in future posts.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Back again

On Tuesday evening, ahead of a trip to London that was to include an evening at the CWA Dagger Awards, to which the CWA had most generously invited me, I scheduled a few posts in advance, just in case work pressures made it difficult for me to find time for posting. What I hadn't anticipated was that I would then succumb to some virulent bug which not only prevented me from attending the Awards, but also kept me away from the pc.

So, my apologies to my wonderful commenters - that is why I have not only not responded to you, but even been unable to publish your comments until today. I've now officially rejoined the human race, although I've had to cancel a gig in Yorkshire with Ann Cleeves that I was really looking forward to. Although it may be a few days before I'm firing on all cylinders, I shall have a fresh post for tomorrow.

Saturday, 24 October 2009


The ‘impossible crime’ story is capable of infinite variations, and although some people think it’s a played-out sub-genre, confined to traditional Golden Age mysteries by the likes of John Dickson Carr, I disagree. The continuing popularity of ‘Jonathan Creek’ shows the potential for intelligently written impossible crime stories on television, while successful novelists as diverse as Stieg Larsson, Christopher Fowler and Jim Kelly have nodded in the direction of the impossible crime in recent times.

In the 90s, I watched quite a few episodes of ‘The X Files’, and I’ve just seen, for the first time, the third episode in series one, which is a very effective version of the impossible crime story. ‘Squeeze’ concerns a number of murders in Baltimore, where the victims were savagely murdered in rooms without an apparently viable means of entry – and their livers were ripped out. When Fox Mulder and Dana Scully come on to the scene, it emerges that the murders have eerie parallels with similar crimes that have occurred at 30-year intervals. But surely the invisible culprit cannot be over one hundred years old?

The solution to the mystery involves paranormal devices that would not be acceptable in a conventional Golden Age whodunit. But in the context of a sci-fi series, the plot is perfectly acceptable, and I enjoyed ‘Squeeze’. It was evidently a great success when first screened, as the initial ‘Monster of the Week’ episode in the long-running series.

‘Squeeze’ features a memorable character called Eugene Victor Tooms (needless to say, with a monicker like that, he is unlikely to be one of the good guys.) – so memorable that he returned for a future episode in the series. ‘Squeeze’ was entertaining enough to remind me why ‘The X Files’ enjoyed such excellent ratings, especially for the early series. I haven’t seen the film based on the series, and believe it met with a mixed reaction, but I’m tempted to give it a try.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Forgotten Book - Faces in the Dark

The French writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac are among my favourite writers of Eurocrime, and they are responsible for my latest contribution to Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books for Friday. Faces in the Dark was first published in Britain in 1955, in a translation by Geoffrey Sainsbury.

The premise is, as usual with these authors, macabre and gripping. Richard Hermantier is a wealthy businessman who has been blinded and disfigured by an exploding grenade. He lives now in a dark, unsettling world – yet, in an ironic touch, his company manufactures lamps. What is to become of him? At least he has a loving wife, a diligent business associate, a feckless yet amiable brother, as well as some devoted servants. So why does he begin to feel afraid?

The tension mounts steadily, and although some of the plot developments are foreseeable, the ending is not. With Boileau and Narcejac, you can never be sure whether the protagonists of their stand-alones will survive – or meet a terrible fate. Hermantier’s darkness is conveyed with menace, and there is one especially grim and memorable scene in a graveyard. This is a short but suspenseful book, not quite at the same high level as some of their work, but still very readable.

Boileau and Narcejac were such vivid writers that their work was often filmed – as with Vertigo and Les Diaboliques. My paperback copy of this book is a film tie-in. The movie Faces in the Dark had a good cast, including John Gregson, Mai Zetterling and Michael Denison. However, I have never come across it. Has anyone?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction

When I wrote a while back that An Oxford Tragedy by J.C. Masterman was regarded as the first mystery set in the city’s academic environs, I was corrected by a comment from Philip, who pointed out that, in 1929, four years earlier, Adam Broome had published The Oxford Murders.

I realised that, instead of relying on my memory of the various reference books that acclaim Masterman’s book and ignore Broome’s, that I should have checked a voluminous book that I bought a few years ago called Academe in Mystery and Detective Fiction. Written by John B. Kramer, it is a real labour of love, commenting on no fewer than 486 academic mysteries from 1910 to 1999.

This is quite a bibliography, compiled with a great deal of discipline. The basic plan of the book is that each of the 486 annotations should comprise two paragraphs. The first describes the story (‘paying special attention to academic disciplines, academic ranks, and the location and nature of the academic institution’) while the second discusses the author.

Kramer’s book is the sort of project that will never appear on any best-seller list, but I admire the endeavour, and he has produced a valuable resource that I have dipped into infrequently in the past. I’ll consult it more diligently when writing about academic mysteries in future. Meanwhile, I’m pleased to say that The Oxford Murders, and Broome’s later book The Cambridge Murders, have both recently been republished in attractive editions by Ostara Publishing, whose enterprise really is commendable. We need more neglected books to reappear!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


I caught up with the first episode of Murderland only 24 hours after it was first shown, which by my standards of TV viewing (I’m still waiting to watch my DVD of The Charmer, which dates back to the 80s) is pretty fast going. The attraction, of course, was Robbie Coltrane, that charismatic actor who was so brilliant in Cracker.

Murderland is very different from Cracker. It’s written by David Pirie, and it features Coltrane as a rough diamond of a cop called Hain. He was called in when a single mother who is also a prostitute was found murdered at home years ago. In this opening episode (it’s a three-part series) events were seen from the perspective of the victim’s lovely teenage daughter, brilliantly portrayed by Bel Powley, although there are glimpses of her in the present day – still tormented by her mother’s brutal death.

One suspect is a dodgy chap who was spotted by the daughter taking photographs (of her) outside her home, but Hain is also in the frame. It seems he was one of the victim’s clients. But can Robbie Coltrane really be a killer? The bloke is practically a national treasure.

I enjoyed this episode. The pace was not exactly frenetic, but the acting was good, and I was sufficiently gripped to want to find out more about the case. I’ll be watching again next week. Or shortly after next week…

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Blue Lightning and others

I’ve received a number of new and forthcoming books published by Pan Macmillan, and the range of titles illustrates the wealth of talent in that company’s list. Pride of place has to go to a book by someone I knew before she was famous! This is Ann Cleeves, whose marvellous Shetland Quartet is to be concluded by Blue Lightning. In this book, Jimmy Perez returns to his native Fair Isle, a place which I’d love to visit myself one day. I say ‘concluded’, but who knows whether Ann can be tempted to continue with a pleasurable series? I certainly hope so.

The Cemetery of Secrets is the latest novel set in Italy to be written by David Hewson. ‘In the ancient burial ground of San Michele, a young woman’s casket is prised open, something is wrenched from her hands, and an extraordinary story begins.’ It’s dubbed ‘A Venetian Mystery’ - competition for Donna Leon, then.

And then there is The Disappeared, by M.R. Hall, the follow up to his widely applauded novel The Coroner. Again, the central character is Jenny Cooper. The author’s CV includes screenwriting , television production and a career as a barrister, and this experience informs his fiction. Incidentally, I've learned that the author is not, as I deduced (so much for me as a literary detective), the Mathew Hall who wrote a pretty successful thriller called The Art of Breaking Glass some years ago. The Coroner is one of the books competing for the CWA Gold Dagger tomorrow night - an impressive achievement in any circumstances, but all the more so in the case of a debut novel.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Back where it all began

Yesterday I made the three and a half hour round trip to Boroughbridge in North Yorkshire. Quite a long way to go for a lunch (and if the traffic is bad, it can be a five-hour plus trip) but definitely worth while. For this was the autumn lunch of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, and the venue was the Crown Hotel, where I attended the Chapter’s inaugural lunch, more than twenty years ago.

At that time, I didn’t know any crime writers, but I was immediately made to feel at home by the convenor Peter Walker, who was there again yesterday. Peter is best known these days as author of the books on which the massively successful TV series ‘Heartbeat’ is based. He was one of three people at the lunch who have chaired the CWA – Lesley Horton and Margaret Murphy being the others.

Among those attending that inaugural lunch were Peter and Margaret Lewis, two academics who have written successful non-fiction books about the genre, as well as some good fiction. They have also set up that much-acclaimed small press, Flambard Press, publisher of Dancing for the Hangman. The three of us dined at the same table, accompanied (among others) by Roger and Jean from Cornwell Internet, who are responsible for the CWA’s website, and those of many leading crime writers.

There is always a ‘feelgood’ factor about these lunches, and this continues with Roger Forsdyke as convenor in succession to Peter Walker. Roger has just published a novel which benefits from his many years of experience in the police. There was an excellent turn-out of 37 people, a sure sign, as Roger said, that the Northern Chapter is the best supported of all the regional branches of the CWA. I enjoyed meeting up with friends old and new (the latter group includes Frances Brody and the historical novelist Karen Maitland). And on the drive back home, I reflected on how very glad I am that I accepted Peter’s original invitation to the Crown, all those years ago.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Forensic evidence, then and now

The highlight of the past week was definitely on Thursday evening, when I took part in Wirral Libraries' Bookfest, sharing a platform at Bebington Library with Margaret Murphy. Our theme was forensic evidence, past and present. Margaret gave a talk about modern forensic techniques, illustrated with lots of graphics. Eternally low-tech, I chatted about the Crippen case, and focused on the role played by Bernard Spilsbury’s evidence in securing the conviction of the little doctor. Amongst its many fascinations, the Crippen story was a landmark in the developing importance of forensic science, and the persuasive nature of Spilsbury's testimony was critical in leading the jury to convict, so that Crippen was sent to the gallows.

Yet that evidence, viewed from the present day perspective, seems pretty controversial. I’ve mentioned before that the barrister Andrew Rose has written a very good book about Spilsbury, highlighting the flaws in his work. But whatever his faults, Spilsbury was undoubtedly a fascinating character, an expert who held juries in the palm of his hand. But you wouldn’t get away with a similar approach these days.

I was especially glad to be involved with the Bookfest for two reasons. First, I used to visit Bebington Library regularly in the 80s, when I was a member of Wirral Writers, who are still going strong in the same location. Second, there has recently been a shocking threat to close almost half the libraries in Wirral. Happily, that threat now seems to have been lifted, but I have the utmost sympathy for the staff, for whom it must have been a very unsettling time. They are a great bunch of people, with whom I’ve worked several times over the years, and they deserve support. I find it hard to believe that Wirral Council could not find better ways to make savings elsewhere.

Finally, I must say how much I enjoyed working with Margaret. She is the Chair of the CWA and has a great deal on her plate, but she always gives the impression of being completely unflappable, even when her Powerpoint presentation temporarily refuses to behave. After the event, Margaret and her husband Murf invited me to their home for a meal, and as always I found their company delightful.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Dying in the Wool

Part of the appeal of crime fiction conferences and other events is that you bump into people, perhaps very briefly the first time, and then over a period of time you sometimes have the opportunity to talk to them at greater length, and start getting to know them better.

In just this way, I came across Frances McNeil initially at a Crime Writers’ Association event, and then had the chance of a longer conversation at St Hilda’s. Frances writes crime under the name of Frances Brody, and she is in the exciting position of awaiting the official publication of her first mystery, Dying in the Wool.

This novel, published by Piatkus (who published my first five mysteries – this was in the days before they were part of the Little, Brown group) is due out on 29 October, and I’ve just received an advance copy, boasting an attractive cover. The story is set in 1920s Yorkshire, and is announced as ‘the first book in a wonderfully whimsical new crime series. Imagine Miss Marple in her youth!’ The detective here is Katy Shackleton, a camera-toting amateur sleuth.

As for Frances, she has had a varied life, having lived in the USA before studying at Ruskin College, Oxford and York University. She has written four previous novels and a number of stage plays, and now lives in Leeds, where she grew up (and where I lived for a couple of years in the 70s, when I was training as a solicitor.) I wish her every success with her new career.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Forgotten Book - The Jackals

The Jackals, by Frederic Valmain, is a pretty obscure title dating from 1962, and it certainly qualifies for inclusion in Patti Abbott’s series of forgotten books for Friday. After I discovered a copy at Hay-on-Wye recently, I blogged about the rather mysterious author and it seems as though the Valmain name was a pseudonym.
His novel takes a well-worn theme, and tackles it with pace and verve. A young doctor, Christophe Chalvet, takes up a job in the coastal town of Tizgert-sur-Mer. He hears about Angelo Falcone, a wealthy recluse with a gorgeous wife who lives in a Chinese house in the town, and when one day he saves a beautiful woman from drowning, he discovers that she is Lorenza Falcone. He falls head over heels for her, and soon they become lovers.

Lorenza confides in him that she is terrified of her disabled, yet menacing husband. He has a criminal past, and abuses her dreadfully. The only servant in the Chinese house is a mute negro, and a young man visits each week to deliver drugs to Lorenza’s husband. How can she escape her grim life? The only viable solution, it seems, is murder. The pattern of the story is thus along the lines of classics such as Double Indemnity. But Valmain’s spare prose packs a considerable punch, and the story gains a great deal from its evocative backdrop, in a country on the brink of revolution.

I enjoyed this book very much. The style reminded me of that splendid writing duo Boileau and Narcejac, and if this is an indication of the quality of his work, I’m surprised that Valmain has slipped so completely from view.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Agatha Christie memories

That excellent online resource Tangled Web UK asked me to review a new, lavishly illustrated book, Hilary Macaskill’s Agatha Christie at Home. It’s one of those volumes often described as for ‘the coffee table’, but this sometimes is a euphemism, meaning that the book is nice to look at, but scarcely worth reading. But I think it’s of interest to Christie fans.

There is discussion about a range of places where Christie felt at home, starting with her birthplace in Torquay, a house called Ashfield. There’s mention of other homes, such as Winterbrook House in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, but naturally the main focus is on Greenway, Christie’s favourite house, standing above the River Dart.

Greenway has recently been donated to the National Trust, and I can’t wait to pay it a return visit. My first trip there was in 1990. The CWA’s annual conference took place in Torquay, and one of the highlights was a private tour of Greenway, conducted by Christie’s grandson. I found it truly fascinating, even though the time available did not permit a full exploration of the lovely grounds.

All in all, it was a great weekend that will long stay in my memory. Other highlights include the meeting of David Suchet and Joan Hickson, when the Orient Express pulled in to the station at Torquay, and the Centenary Dinner, when my wife and I rubbed shoulders with members of the casts of the Christie tv series, and watched, from the balcony of the Conference Centre, a dramatic fireworks display over the bay, possibly the most dazzling I've ever seen in my life.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Profiling Val McDermid

I managed to catch the ITV 3 documentary about Val McDermid, a crime writer of genuine distinction. A good programme, which gave a flavour of her writing strengths, whilst inevitably paying some attention to her much-hyped difference of opinion with Ian Rankin about what it takes for a woman writer to reach the top of the sales lists.

Val is best known for her The Wire in the Blood series, featuring Tony Hill, but before that she served her apprenticeship with a series about a journalist (Val too was a journalist before she began to write full time) and then a series featuring a female private eye based in Manchester. In recent years, she’s written a number of stand-alones, and a recent change of publisher may well see her selling even more copies than in the past.

Val and I were contemporaries at university, but our paths didn’t cross there, and we first met through the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, back in the early 90s. Leafing through an old photo album recently, I came across a few snaps of her playing with my son – much to his delight - when he was very small, in the course of a fun weekend organised by Reginald Hill for the Northern crime writers in the Lake District. (Long before I dreamed of setting a series of my own in that wonderful location, I should add.)

I was there at the CWA Daggers Awards ceremony the night when the first Tony Hill book, The Mermaids Singing, won the Gold Dagger, and that was probably her ‘breakout moment’. She deserves her success, for she is a highly intelligent and talented writer. When I’ve talked to her, I’ve been impressed by her knowledge of and love of the classic detective stories, and she recognises the importance of a strong, twisty plot as well as good characterisation. I confidently expect that she’ll be a major force in the genre for many years to come.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Hidden Man

I was asked by Shots Magazine to review The Hidden Man by David Ellis, and reading the book made me think again of the qualities necessary for a thriller. Ellis is someone I haven’t met, but he’s a successful American attorney whose photo is handsome and whose books sell in large quantities. These attributes might, just possibly, have prejudiced me against him! However, I have to say straight away that I thought his book was good and deserves to do well. Not quite in the Lee Child or John Grisham class, perhaps, but a very efficient piece of work.

Essentially, it’s a story about an attorney who is coming to terms with family tragedy when hired by a mysterious stranger to defend a schoolboy friend on a murder rap. There is a lot of no doubt authentic legal detail, and the characterisation is careful, but the great strength of the book lies in the plotting. I thought this was very good, with plenty of questions to answer and plenty of twists. Definitely a cut above the standard associated in my mind with the average courtroom thriller, which can be a bit samey. So I will certainly be happy to read Ellis again in future.

As with a number of other thrillers I’ve read in the past year or so, though, Ellis juggled with viewpoints, not always in a way I found entirely successful. There’s one chapter towards the end, where the hero (who tells most of the story in the first person) features in the third person in a critical scene. For me, that didn’t entirely come off. I’m coming round to the opinion that selection of viewpoint is one of the central challenges in constructing a thriller. And it is far from easy to get it absolutely right.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Profiling Ruth Rendell

ITV 3’s documentary about that marvellous writer Ruth Rendell was full of good things, including quite a bit from the lady herself. I agreed with Val McDermid’s observation that Rendell has a particular gift for delineating the psychology of ‘difference’. Many of her most memorable characters are rather strange individuals, but she has this knack of making them come alive. When I created Guy, the charming sociopath who features in The Arsenic Labyrinth, I was much influenced by Rendell, and I found the scenes featuring Guy enormously pleasurable to write.

The programme identified three types of Rendell novels – the Wexfords, the Rendell stand-alones and the books written under the name of Barbara Vine. There were interviews with George Baker, who played Wexford so well on the small screen (and who also adapted some of the books for television) and discussion about how Kingsmarkham (a fictional town based on Midhurst in Sussex) has evolved over the years. The Wexford stories highlighted were Simisola and Road Rage, and these books reflect Rendell’s more overt focus on social and political issues over the last fifteen years. Rendell evidently relishes her political life as a Labour peer, but I must say that the political elements in her more recent books don't appeal to mean as much as her brilliant insights into criminal psychology.

Rendell and P.D. James operate on opposite sides of the political divide, but their friendship shone through in their interviews, and struck me as absolutely genuine. They are both fine writers, who accord each other a very proper respect – and they are both shrewd enough to recognise that this may disappoint the media, who always prefer a story of conflict.

Another crime writer from the Conservative side, Gyles Brandreth, spoke warmly of Rendell’s work,although I was baffled by his dislike of her Barbara Vine books – the first few in particular are superb, and other interviewees, such as Andrew Taylor, were adamant that the Vine books include much of her very best work.

I was, though, disappointed that the programme didn’t pay any attention to the non-Wexford Rendells. Several of these are genuine masterpieces. And I still think that A Judgment in Stone is one of the most gripping novels of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Dark City

Dark City is sometimes described as a thriller, and sometimes as a noir film, and both these descriptions are true, but they are less than the whole truth. Really, it’s a science fiction film, with some of the apparatus of a thriller, and with influences ranging from Franz Kafka to Fritz Lang.

The dark city of the title is one in which people fall asleep mysteriously, and a voiceover from an unappetising psychiatrist (creepily played by Kiefer Sutherland) explains that alien visitors to Earth called ‘Strangers’ used their powers to alter the memories of the planet’s inhabitants.

The action proper begins when John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes to find that he is accompanied by a murdered woman. It turns out that she is one of six prostitutes to have been killed in the city. Soon he is on the run – but not just from the police. The Strangers are after him, because attempts to fiddle with his memory have gone wrong.

Murdoch forms an uneasy bond with a cop played by the always excellent William Hurt, and seeks to build a relationship with the woman who is said to be the wife who betrayed him. He also tries to understand his own past, and find a place called Shell Beach, where he and his wife first met. But is Shell Beach an illusion?

It’s more than a decade since this beautifully produced and directed film came out, and it seems to have become something of a cult favourite. It’s not the sort of film I often watch, but it made an enjoyable change and I did feel it was an impressive piece of work.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Natural Causes

Improbable as it may seem, I received a generous mention in The Daily Telegraph’s royal blog yesterday. This is not, sad to say, because of any blue blood coursing through my veins. The explanation, as you can see from his post, is that the blog is authored by that estimable writer Tim Heald, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person last year, after a long period of correspondence.

Tim mentions my contribution to Mike Ashley’s anthology of Royal Whodunnits. My story, ‘Natural Causes’, featured King George IV and that interesting character Henry Bolingbroke. Once the idea came to me, it was a story I enjoyed writing, and researching. If memory serves, it was a biography by Flora Fraser featuring Caroline of Brunswick which provided much of the raw material. And Flora Fraser’s mother is Antonia Fraser, herself a detective writer of repute and, like Tim Heald, a member of the Detection Club.

Mike Ashley, incidentally, has compiled a good many anthologies of note. I’ve been privileged to contribute to quite a number of them, very often with stories on historical themes.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Forgotten Book - Patterns in the Dust

Like my last entry in Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books series, Patterns in the Dust was an auspicious debut novel by a writer of distinction who, in the 1980s, seemed sure to be a major figure in the genre for many years to come. Yet Lesley Grant-Adamson has produced very little crime fiction in recent times, and that is a pity, for as Patterns in the Dust shows, she is highly accomplished.

This short novel (published by Faber, one of the choosiest of publishers) appeared in 1985, and it introduced Rain Morgan, a journalist with a penchant for detection (as well as conversation – she has a gossip column.) Rain’s creator was also a seasoned journalist, and the character is both appealing and credible.

In this story, Rain encounters murder while on holiday in Somerset, and the story blends a rural setting reminiscent of Golden Age mysteries with elements that were (at least in 1985) bang up-to-date, including punks and answerphones. The final words of the book convey character and nuance with Grant-Adamson’s customary economy as Rain looks out on a hunt taking place on the hillside: ‘She could not see the fox but her heart was with it.’

Rain appeared in four more books, before Grant-Adamson turned her attention to stand-alones. A change of publishers didn’t work out, and her principal work in recent years so far as our genre is concerned is a teach-yourself book about crime writing, which has run to a couple of editions. But her books are worth seeking out, not least this first effort. I bought the paperback edition when it came out in 1986, and although I couldn’t have guessed it, the cover artwork was done by the same artist, Nick Hardcastle, who would later create the artwork for my first four paperbacks.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Victoria Vanishes

I’ve never met Christopher Fowler in person, although we share an agent, and whilst I’ve read and enjoyed his short fiction in the past, I’ve been slow in catching up with his successful series about Bryant and May, from the Peculiar Crimes Unit. I’ve just finished the sixth book in that series, The Victoria Vanishes, and I must say I found it immensely enjoyable – one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time.

This is a book packed with good things. For instance, there is a very nice ‘impossible’ puzzle, which features almost incidentally in the story-line. How is it that Arthur Bryant, after a few drinks, should have seen a woman coming out of a pub that no longer exists?

The main plot concerns a series of killings of middle-aged women in London’s public houses. The mystery is splendidly contrived, and although the solution is a little far-fetched, that matters not. The twists and turns make the hunt for the culprit a very satisfactory one.

But above all, what I liked about the book was the quality of the writing, and in particular its humour, which was very much on my wavelength. The style blends nostalgia with a sharply contemporary eye on the nature of modern society. And there are lots of wonderful lines. As well as a cat called Crippen. What more could anyone want?

One thing is for sure. I shall be reading more Bryant and May books.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Ngaio Again

Further to my post in August about the collection edited by B.J. Rahn, I’ve found another relatively obscure book, this time dating back to 1996, which discusses the work of one of the most notable writers of the Golden Age. Murder Most Poetic: the mystery novels of Ngaio Marsh, is a fairly short but pithy survey by Mary S. Weinkauf.

Weinkauf makes the point that Marsh’s first love was always the theatre, but it was writing detective fiction that gave her financial freedom. (Those were the days, huh?) She makes a number of interesting points. For example: ‘Character is the greatest single factor in Alleyn’s investigation. It is not why one person murders another which fascinates him, but whose personality is most likely to turn homicidal – in the right conditions.’

This is an interesting perspective for a whodunit writer, although for me it is the ‘why’ that is crucial – in fact, the starting point for most of my fictions. I agree with Weinkauf that it is a flaw that ‘Marsh’s characters tend to kill others for the convenience of her plot.’

This is a book full of spoilers, which are nevertheless rather entertaining. For instance, one appendix lists ‘actors and others associated with the theatre who are killers in Marsh’s fiction’. Fourteen people are named. Another appendix lists references to Shakespeare’s plays in Marsh’s work. A whole chapter is devoted to ‘theatrical devices in Marsh’s fiction’.

All in all, this is a worthwhile study of a good crime writer. Weinkauf does not make excessive claims for Marsh, and recognises (I think this is unarguable) that Christie was much better at plotting, but highlights her strengths, and analyses her work with a care that encourages me – after a long gap - to read more Marsh in the future.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Deja Vu

Last night I got back home from Oxford after an emotional day, but one of genuine happiness. I’d deposited my first born at university – 35 years, almost to the day, since I started a new life at the very same college, reading the very same subject. Lots of scope for nostalgia, especially as his room turned out to be on the floor below the room where I first met the lady who was to become his mother. It all felt a bit surreal.

I was reminded once again, as if I needed a reminder, of the sense of the exciting possibilities of student life, and certainly Oxford has always seemed to me to be a place of infinite possibilities. It was, of course, entertaining to see all the new students, trying not to be embarrassed by their parents. And to revisit old haunts such as the Oxford Union and Blackwell’s. (I was glad to see the bookshop had stocked up with copies of Dancing with the Hangman, and I’ll reflect on the subject of authors visiting bookshops in a future post.)

When I was a student, I wrote a good deal, but struggled to finish any crime fiction. I was too overwhelmed by the challenge of plotting a complex mystery, and the greatest success I had in those days was in writing for radio – a script of mine called ‘The Marrying Kind’ about a bigamist was recorded at Radio Oxford. It was a comedy, and I enjoy humorous writing to this day.

And as I wandered through the city, I added to the photos of the college a shot (it's the picture at the top of this post) of the old Saxon tower in Cornmarket. Which, as readers of the Lake District Mysteries know, is the tower from which Daniel Kind’s partner, Aimee, jumped to her death before the events of The Coffin Trail. But yesterday, it was a tranquil place, albeit dampened by the drizzle. Ah yes, the Oxford rain. I remember it well.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Collecting Crime

When I talked to second hand book dealers, while researching background for The Serpent Pool, I was struck by how often they mentioned the fact that decent old books have become increasingly difficult to find. I know of at least one (very good) dealer who has given up selling books simply because he couldn’t find enough items of quality. Where they have all gone to, I don’t know. Hidden in private collections, presumably.

The value of a book is largely determined by its rarity and in particular by its condition, and that of its dust wrapper. The quality of the story, oddly, seems to matter rather less. I suppose this is partly because really notable books will often be printed in such large numbers that there is no great value in any one particular copy. The more obscure the author, the more valuable the book, is a general principle. There are exceptions, though. Very often, the first book of a major writer will only be published with a small, or relatively small, print run. This was true of, say, J.K.Rowling and Ian Rankin.

I’m interested in books with intriguing inscriptions from the author. Partly, I must admit, because I have a half-formed mystery plot floating around my mind that involves such an inscription. One or two inscribed books of my own feature in the Collecting Crime page on my website.

There are a number of inscribed items in James M. Pickard’s catalogue of rare books. Two that caught my eye were co-written paperbacks from 1964, the two volumes that made up Liberal Studies: an outline Course. One of the authors and signatories was one N.C. Dexter. Much better known today as the creator of Inspector Morse…

One place where thankfully there is no shortage of second hand books is Hay-on-Wye. And as I've sorted Blogger out (for the moment, anyway) here are some pictures as promised from my recent trip.

However, given that my resident webmaster and IT guru has just left home to start his university career, it's only a question of time before my attempts to cope with technology are afflicted by various glitches. So apologies in advance for any examples of incompetence....

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Double Jeopardy

There will never be a film about an insurance scam to match Double Indemnity, but the 1999 movie Double Jeopardy was, I discovered the other evening, an enjoyable time-passer. It stars Tommy Lee Jones at his edgiest, and the glamorous Ashley Judd. They are a rich couple who seem to have it all, but there are questions about the reliability of Tommy (surprise, surprise) and when they go off sailing, Ashley wakes to find a trail of blood, a sharp knife…and no husband.

Ashley, it turns out, was to benefit under her husband’s insurance policy, and she is arrested, though no body is found. She arranges for her beloved child to be adopted by her best friend, and is sent to prison. I have to say that it struck me as amazing that her guilt would be so easily established on pretty flimsy evidence. And the concept of ‘double jeopardy’, as explained in the film, doesn’t really stand up in the context of the facts of the story-line.

However, if you can overlook the plot holes (not everyone can, I realise) what follows is a pretty exciting action thriller. Ashley is determined to retrieve her child, and exact revenge, and stops at nothing to achieve her goals. Needless to say, she does one or two pretty stupid things which expose her to grave danger when she comes face to face with a ruthless killer. But that’s not too unusual in crime movies, is it?

I enjoyed this film. It is so well made that you can suspend your disbelief for a hundred minutes or so. Not a classic, but not bad, either.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Hugh Greene and Sherlock's Rivals

I mentioned Hugh Greene recently. He is nowadays little remembered, in comparison to his brother Graham, yet in his time (1910-1987) he became a major public figure, notably as Director General of the BBC. He picked up a knighthood, published a few books and managed to fit in four marriages. A busy chap.

When I was ten or eleven, I was given as a Christmas present The Spy’s Bedside Book, a nice anthology which Hugh edited together with Graham. Enjoyable stuff, but even better was a subsequent present, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. This was a collection of stories about detective characters whose exploits were overshadowed by the more famous Sherlock. Examples included Romney Pringle and the villainous Dorrington.

The book was a deserved success, and spawned a television series. This has recently come out on DVD and the only reason I haven’t yet treated myself to a copy is because I can’t imagine when I’d get to watch it. But I’m sure I will succumb to temptation in due course.

Hugh Greene produced three more compilations of short stories from the era of Conan Doyle. One book featured rural crimes, another was devoted to early examples of Eurocrime, and a third to American mysteries. There were some good finds in each volume, and if you like early detective stories, you will find much to feast on in the Hugh Greene anthologies.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Forgotten Book - Dupe

Liza Cody’s Dupe ought to be a controversial inclusion for Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Friday series. True, it’s almost thirty years since the book appeared, in 1980, but it won the John Creasey Memorial Dagger for best debut crime novel of the year, and it introduced us not only to a fine author, but also to a fine character, the private eye Anna Lee.

Anna is an appealing character: youthful, a bit frustrated, and currently bottom in the pecking order at Brierley Security, Private Investigations. When the bereaved parents of Deirdre Jackson approach Brierley Security, wanting to know more about the car crash that killed their daughter, it doesn’t seem like a great job, so naturally it goes to Anna. But as she investigates the down-at-heel film business in which Deirdre worked, she discovers that there was more to the death than met the eye. The title of the book, naturally, has a double meaning.

This was one of those books I read in the eighties, and from which I sought a bit of inspiration, when I was thinking about what it took to write a fresh new mystery series. I liked Cody’s crisp, economical style of writing, the plausible way in which Anna and her colleagues were depicted, and the evocative way in which she depicted Anna Lee’s London. These qualities are enduring strengths of her work, and it was no surprise when the Anna Lee series was adapted for television. With that excellent actor Imogen Stubbs in the title role, it should have been a winner. But somehow the mix didn’t work, and Liza seems to have become disillusioned with the Anna Lee series. It’s a long time since this appealing character last appeared.

Happily, Liza Cody continues to write novels and short stories (she also co-edited three volumes of the CWA anthology before I took over the editorship), although these appear less frequently than in the past. She is not by any means a forgotten author, and Dupe definitely should not be a forgotten book.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Serpent Pool

I’ve said it before, and I am sure I’ll say it again, but blogging has introduced me to a large number of delightful people, both fellow bloggers and readers/commenters, and a good many have shown me a lot of kindness over the couple of years that I’ve been posting to ‘Do you write under your own name?’

Among them is Karen, of Eurocrime, who this week kindly featured advance news of the publication of The Serpent Pool in the UK and the US. I’m pleased to say that negotiations are also well under way with my German publishers Luebbe with a view to the book appearing in translation next year. 

What has gratified me most is the reaction of the three sets of publishers. Each of them has said, separately, that they regard The Serpent Pool as the best of the Lake District Mysteries to date. This is exactly the sort of reaction that one hopes for, of course, but publishers can be robust people in private discussion, and I am sure that none of my publishers would have said this if they didn’t genuinely mean it.

I always want my latest book to be better than its predecessors, but of course, critical opinion can vary. However, I’m looking forward to next year’s publication of this title with a good deal of hope that others will share the enthusiasm of the various publishers.

In the meantime, here is the proposed cover of the US edition from Poisoned Pen Press.