Sunday, 28 February 2010


The detective is a wonderful fictional character, yet surprisingly few books (well, I’m surprised by it, anyway) have been devoted to listing and describing the leading detectives of fiction. Russell James did an excellent job, though, with Great British Fictional Detectives, and a much earlier book, little known today, also deserves mention.

This is Detectionary, edited by Otto Penzler, Chris Steinbrunner and Marvin Lachman (a formidably well-informed trio), having been ‘conceived and produced’ by Mill Roseman. It is, quite simply, ‘a biographical dictionary of leading characters in mystery fiction’.

The text is split into four sections: detectives, criminals, celebrated cases and mystery movies. Inevitably, with a book of this kind, the entries are short and highly selective. But there is a great deal of fascinating information here.

I must also admit that there are numerous detectives – mostly Americans - mentioned of whom I hadn’t heard before I read Detectionary. These include (examples taken at random): Dr Mary Finney (creator: Matthew Head), Cliff Chandler (Baynard Kendrick), Inspector Christopher McKee (Helen Reilly) and Dr Colin Starr (Rufus King). All in all, this is a great book to dip into. Each time I do, I learn something fresh. And I do love the title.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

The People's History Museum

I had the pleasure of being invited to the opening last night of the revamped People’s History Museum in Manchester. I’m a big fan of museums generally, and I much enjoyed inventing the Museum of Myth and Legend for The Arsenic Labyrinth, and researching in places like the fascinating Bagshaw Museum in West Yorkshire. Lottery money has helped to ensure that Manchester’s redeveloped museum looks very impressive, while the displays are imaginatively presented.

The opening was very well attended, and there was a real buzz about the place. My host, a trustee of the Museum, and a pal for the best part of thirty years, is a doyen of the Labour party, and I gather the party’s archives are to be kept in the Museum. He is one of many people who have worked hard on the project, and I'm sure they were all pleased with last night's event.I can’t imagine ever wanting to join a political party, and I don’t have much time for our present government, but I do think that the history of the labour movement is fascinating. Above all there are many rather moving stories of the struggles of those who believed in a cause, and who did not allow their idealism to be tainted by the egotism and selfishness that is the hallmark of the expenses scandal era. One does wonder what stalwarts of the past would make of the way in which politics has developed in recent years.

Political thrillers often seem unsatisfactory to me, especially if they are written from a prejudiced viewpoint, whether of right or left, but there are some interesting mysteries with a political slant. One that I acquired a while back, and look forward to reading,is The Division Bell Mystery (1932) by Ellen Wilkinson, a left wing MP known as ‘Red Ellen’; her circle included G.D.H. Cole, whose book Double Blackmail I mentioned recently..

Wilkinson’s life story is remarkable, though it had a sad and premature end. A renowned class warrior, who herself came from Manchester, she became Minister for Education in 1945. Two years later, she took an overdose, for reasons that remain mysterious; some say it was because she was disappointed by political failure, on other accounts she was distraught because of an unsatisfactory secret affair with an ambitious fellow minister. Her whodunit may not be a masterpiece – it is perhaps significant that she never wrote another – but it will be interesting, quite apart from the story-line, to see how a fascinating woman portrayed the political dynamics of her time.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Forgotten Book - Spells of Evil

Spells of Evil, first published in 1961, is a little-known suspense novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, but it ranks with their more celebrated mysteries. As so often with these two writers, an outlandish story-line is made engrossing by virtue of their talent for creating a truly macabre atmosphere. Why most of their books have so long been out of print in English translation (and some have never been translated once) is inexplicable.

It’s not unusual in Boileau-Narcejac (and the other French writers who worked in the same vein) to find a charming yet weak-willed male protagonist falling in lust with a sexy but duplicitous woman, with fatal consequences. So it is here. Almost all of the story is told by a vet, Francois Rauchelle, who lives on the coast with his quiet wife Eliane. After he is called out to help a mysterious widow, Myriam Heller, who lives with a tame cheetah and an African maid, he embarks on a dangerous affair. But he soon has cause to worry that Myriam may be able to use black arts learned in Africa (the spells of the title) to murderous effect.

Boileau-Narcejac achieve their effects through a combination of clever plotting, intense prose and a choice of striking visual imagery. Myriam lives on an island linked to the mainland by a narrow causeway, and only accessible at low tide. Her bizarre domestic set-up is described vividly, as is Rauchelle’s terror when he finds himself caught in a trap. It all builds towards a startling climax from France’s masters of the surprise ending..

The blurb of the UK edition (which was translated by Daphne Woodward) gives too much of the story away, but it’s such a good and original story that the publishers’ error does not spoil things. And I do agree with the blurb writer on this: ‘The reader will fondly imagine that he knows exactly what is going to happen, but he will always be wrong.’

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Young and Innocent

Young and Innocent sounds rather like the title of dodgy movie screened in a back street in Soho, but in fact it is the title of a pre-Hollywood Hitchcock movie, dating from 1937. I was alerted to its quality by comments on this blog some months ago, and now I’ve finally got round to watching it, I can say I agree that it’s a very entertaining film, which has stood the test of time better than many.

From the start, there isn’t much doubt about the identity of the murderer of actress Christine Clay, or the motive, but when her strangled corpse is found by a young man who was friendly with her, the police ignore the obvious suspect (this is never explained) and arrest the young man. The fact she was strangled with the belt of his raincoat is a clinching piece of evidence, although he claims the coat was stolen from him. The hunt for the coat in this film is an early example of a Hitchcockesque pursuit of a Macguffin.

The young man escapes police custody, and is assisted in his flight from justice by the daughter of the chief constable – a part played by a young woman with the marvellous name of Nova Pilbeam. Along the way, the pair bump into a jovial chap played by Basil Radford, soon to earn fame in a real Hitchcock classic, The Lady Vanishes.

The film is allegedly based on Josephine Tey’s book A Shilling for Candles. However, Hitchcock butchered the source material, not for the last time in his career. Inspector Alan Grant, Tey’s series detective, does not even feature in the film – nor, amazingly, does Tey’s murderer. A loose adaptation, then, to put it mildly – but a likeable film nonetheless.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A Mystery of the Deep Sea

There is nothing new about the importance of forensic pathology in detective fiction, and I was reminded of this when watching the opening episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, a very enjoyable collection on DVD of the first series of this excellent TV show from the 1970s. The mystery in question was ‘A Message from the Deep Sea’, and the author of the original tale on which the episode was based was R. Austin Freeman.

Freeman’s detective was Dr John Thorndyke, and if you haven’t come across him, you have missed a giant of the Golden Age of detective fiction. Thorndyke specialised in what he liked to call ‘medical jurisprudence’, and – often assisted by his friend Jervis, he used his scientific expertise to unravel countless puzzles that defeated the hapless chaps from Scotland Yard and sundry rural forces.

In this episode, Dr Thorndyke was played by John Neville – a handsome actor, whose casting provides a reminder that Thorndyke was supposed to be a handsome man, though the emphasis was always on his detective skills, his personal life never intruding as it would be in the hands of a modern writer. The puzzle involved the throat-cutting of a young woman, and the police suspicion of a classic ‘obvious suspect’. In an inquest scene, Thorndyke establishes that the evidence proves the guilt of another – a chap who foolishly makes a run for it, only to be captured by the burly cops Thorndyke has arranged to be stationed in the makeshift courtroom.

I enjoyed this episode. Neville makes Thorndyke rather more charismatic than I remember him from my teenage years, when I read many of the Freeman short stories, plus several of the novels. Jervis was played by James Cossins, best remembered as a hotel inspector in an episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’, while one of the cops was played by Terence Rigby, better known in the 70s as P.C. Snow in Softly, Softly.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010


Even if its plot is straightforward, a thriller can thrill, as long as the story is told with drive and style, and the 2008 movie Taken is a good example of this. Taken stars Liam Neeson as retired CIA man Bryan Mills, whose wife has found a second husband who is richer and more suave, and with whom Mills’ adored 17 year old daughter Kim now lives. Mills reluctantly agrees to Kim going off on an extended holiday in Europe with a girlfriend, but when the pair are kidnapped hours after arriving in Paris, he springs into action, determined to rescue Kim.

I suppose everyone who watches this film will expect Mills to triumph in the end, and of course they are not disappointed. But the predictability doesn’t matter much, because Neeson plays the veteran hero with utter conviction, and after a careful opening, in which his motivation is established, the pace becomes relentless.

So we have vertiginous clambering around an apartment block, high-speed car chases, and shoot-outs aplenty, as well as the obligatory uncharacteristic lapse of concentration on the hero’s part which leaves him facing imminent execution. I thought it was very well done, and the film was short enough to allow me no time to ponder the improbability of it all.

If it’s an undemanding slice of entertainment that you’re after, I can recommend Taken, which I’d put alongside the Bourne films as an illustration of the way in which rather formulaic plot elements can be turned into a gripping and truly enjoyable action film. And Neeson, who made this movie not long before the utterly tragic death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, is absolutely excellent.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Sharp Objects: review

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn, won the CWA Debut Dagger three years ago, and having just read it, I can understand why. It’s a very accomplished piece of writing, and a disturbing novel of psychological suspense. If you’re after a comfort read, look elsewhere, but if you are prepared for a dark journey, you’ll be gripped by this book.

It’s the story of Camille, a reporter from Chicago, who is sent to her home town, the splendidly named Wind Gap, to investigate the murders of two young (and, it turns out, not very pleasant) girls. Inevitably, Camille goes back to her mother, the pretty but complicated Adora, and recalls the trauma surrounding the death, some years back, of her sister Marian.

Camille has more than her fair share of demons to exorcise, it turns out. Among her own dark secrets is the fact that she self-harms, and after years spent cutting words into her body, she is terrified of anyone seeing the damage she has done to herself. Yet she is a beautiful woman, and becomes involved both with the out of town cop investigating the crimes, and the prime suspect.

Although the story sags a little in the middle, the beginning and end are outstanding. It’s an original and well-written book, with a memorable protagonist and a splendidly evoked locale. Wind Gap isn’t exactly Stepford, but it’s a place where women are in the ascendancy - and not in a good way. I found the book troubling, but it did impress me.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Secret Adversary

Very belatedly indeed, I have just watched the television adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary, first screened as long ago as 1983. The book itself was Christie’s second, a light-hearted thriller, and it’s safe to say that it would now be pretty obscure had its author not proceeded to write some of the finest of all whodunits. The plot has its ludicrous moments, but it’s a very lively story with likeable protagonists, and the adaptation by Pat Sandys played to these strengths, as well as treating us to some sumptuous photography.

This was the story which introduced Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley, who went on to marry, and cropped up occasionally in Christie stories for the rest of her career. Here, just after the First World War, they are at a loose end and in search of adventure. Tommy overheard a conversation about someone called Jane Finn (overheard conversations were to become a Christie trademark) and events move rapidly from there, as they become unofficial secret service agents and set off on the track of a missing treaty that, if it falls into the wrong hands, may lead to a general strike and the overthrow of the government.

The producers cast two very good-looking actors as Tommy and Tuppence – James Warwick and Francesca Annis. Francesca Annis in particular performs her role with gusto: she really is one of my favourite tv stars. This pair later starred in a series based on the linked short stories featuring Tommy and Tuppence, Partners in Crime, which again I did not see at the time. My question to any of you who did watch it is: was it any good?

The supporting cast was excellent, including Peter Barkworth doing his usual reliable Englishman as the secret service supreme, Mr Carter, Toria Fuller (who seems to have ended her screen career prematurely, according to a quick search I made on the internet), and Alec McCowen. Oh, and George Baker plays a bad guy – yes, our own Inspector Wexford, who earlier in his career quite often took villainous roles that would be almost unthinkable today! All in all, this show was pleasant entertainment, and the twists in the story-line do give at least a hint of the skills that Christie went on to develop with such extraordinary single-mindedness.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Rules of Film Noir

The Rules of Film Noir, amiably presented by Matthew Sweet, offered a useful tour around the genre, with the assistance of plenty of clips and contributions from talking heads such as the notable American crime writer George Pelecanos.

Sweet pointed out that, although we tend to think of film noir as American, and the stories of the films often came from pulp fiction, the success of this dark brand of movie owed much to European influences. For example, Sweet and others pointed out that many of the finest directors, men like Wilder, Tourneur, and Siodmak, originated from Europe and some of the cinematographic effects had their roots in German expressionism. Similarly, there was a European style to some of the music used in the films, and due tribute was paid to the work of the great Miklos Rozsa.

Some of the clips came from films I know well, but I’ve never got round to watching either The Big Combo or Murder My Sweet. Two marvellous films based on James M. Cain classics, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, were among those featured, but I was surprised that D.O.A., Phantom Lady and Detour didn’t get a mention. But there is a limit to how much ground you can cover in an hour.

It was said that Touch of Evil (1958) was the last true film noir. But, of course, movies in the film noir tradition continued to be made. And it was surprising, given that the programme ended on this note, that no mention was made of that modern classic in the tradition, Body Heat. Especially since John Barry’s brilliant jazzy theme for Body Heat opened the programme!

Friday, 19 February 2010

Forgotten Book - Double Blackmail

The blurb of the American edition of the Golden Age mystery Double Blackmail, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, is rather enticing: ‘”Double Blackmail” only in part describes the double-ness of this detective mystery. There are, of course, two cases of blackmail. But there are likewise two murders; two bigamies; two detectives; the two Coles for authors; and twins….’

Two bigamies – blimey, you don’t find that in many murder mysteries nowadays! The Coles were a husband and wife team who were prolific producers in the Golden Age. They were prominent socialists, and G.D.H. (like Robert Barnard, many years later) was a Balliol man who rose to prominence in the Fabian Society. Margaret was the sister of Raymond Postgate, who wrote that brilliant crime novel Verdict of Twelve (and who also devised The Good Food Guide), and aunt to Oliver Postgate, creator of Bagpuss.

The Coles wrote books of the kind disparagingly described as ‘humdrums’, and their regular sleuth Superintendent Wilson was notoriously characterless, but I’m led to believe from comments on the excellent Golden Age Detection discussion group that this novel, which features Wilson, is one of their better efforts.

I have not yet read the book, having only just bought it, as a treat for myself after a few fun-free weeks. The appeal of this particular volume was not just the mystery (though I do find that idea of a story about double bigamy weirdly intriguing) but the fact that this book was presented to the Detection Club, and signed by, Margaret Cole herself. So it’s a small piece of crime fiction heritage, and I’m very happy to have it on my bookshelf.

Thursday, 18 February 2010


All writers, however retiring by nature, have to ‘do publicity’ these days (well, maybe not the likes of Harper Lee or the recently deceased J.D. Salinger, but it’s true for the rest of us) and sometimes handling interviews can be tricky. I’ve included a TV interview of myself on my website, but I don’t for a moment claim that I handled it that well. It’s always interesting to seize the chance to learn more, and sometimes the source of instruction can be unexpected.

I have in mind the interviews which are at the heart of Ron Howard’s excellent movie Frost/Nixon. This dramatises the famous confrontation between David Frost (now Sir David) and former President Richard M. Nixon. Of course, the script embellishes the reality, but it’s still very thought-provoking. You see the importance of preparation – both Frost and Nixon, and their respective teams, did plenty of prep – but you also see what happens to the best laid plans…

I really enjoyed the film. Michael Sheen and Frank Langella perform superbly in the title roles, and Rebecca Hall (daughter of Sir Peter) is stunningly glamorous as Frost’s then girlfriend (the film, it seems, invented a new version of the story of their initial meeting.) It’s unwise to treat a film like this as history, but it does cast a fascinating light on an unforgettable episode in our past.

I’ll never be interviewed by Sir David, but I do think this film offers, among many good things, a reminder of one of the golden rules of interviews. It’s a privilege to be interviewed, and it’s absolutely essential to treat the interviewer with the utmost respect. Interviewing is a real skill, and some of those who have quizzed me over the years have been highly expert practitioners.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Mentalist

I have finally caught up with a successful, newish American crime series – well, by watching one episode of The Mentalist, anyway. And it was, I think, the first episode of the series proper following the pilot. The starting point is the discovery of a young woman’s murdered body, and the trail soon leads to the restaurant where she worked.

The mentalist of the title is Patrick Jane, played by Simon Baker. He is loosely attached to the California Bureau of Investigation, and uses his observation power sto assist in the detection of crime. The senior cop is Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) and her team includes a young cop who understandably fancies a very attractive colleague. In this episode, the script was taut, although there was no real explanation of what motivated the crazed killers. The pace was brisk, and the characterisation of the detectives sound. Patrick hypnotised a witness into revealing information, whioch was a bit of a cheat, but overall, I enjoyed it and would be very glad to watch the show again in future.

What struck me most forcibly was the fact that the premise of the brilliant, wayward sleuth is essentially an updating of Sherlock Holmes – yet another tribute to the brilliance of Conan Doyle’s creation. We have seen so many of these maverick superstars of detection over the years, but their appeal never seems to fade, and why should it? My favourite in recent years has to be Jonathan Creek, but even he is, really, a modern version of earlier magician detectives such as Clayton Rawson’s The Great Merlini. Truly, with crime fiction, there is nothing new under the sun.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


Gilda is a 1946 black and white movie directed by Charles Vidor and starring Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth. You could call it a film noir, and at first I thought it might be a variant of the Double Indemnity type of story where a glamorous woman inveigles a weak man to murder her wealthy husband. But the story-line of Gilda is rather different. It veers this way and that, and isn’t easy to pin down.

Ford plays a gambler, Johnny Farrell, who shows up in Buenos Aires and chances upon a German called Mundson who is apparently charming but also sinister, in a slightly unlikely way, I felt. Mundson owns a casino, and appoints Johnny as his chief henchman. He trusts Johnny, and Johnny shows plenty of loyalty, but their relationship is put under strain when Mundson returns from a trip with a new wife in tow. This is the eponymous Gilda, seductively played by Hayworth.

Gilda, it turns out, is an old flame of Johnny’s. It is difficult to make out whether their mutual loathing is genuine, feigned, or not mutual at all. Mundson reveals that he is the head of a tungsten cartel (ah, those tungsten cartels, you don’t hear much of them nowadays!), having done a covert deal with a group of fellow Germans to front the organisation while the war was raging. With the war over, the bad guys want their cartel back, but Mundson is bent on keeping control.

I enjoyed this film. Hayworth is an excellent femme fatale, and she makes the film work. I’ve never been a Glenn Ford fan, I’m afraid, but here he irritated me less than in one or two other roles, perhaps because there was a real chemistry between him and Hayworth. The plot is a bit wacky, but it twists enough to maintain interest throughout. I wouldn’t describe Gilda as a classic, but it’s certainly very watchable.

Monday, 15 February 2010

When Should a Series End?

One of the fascinations about the fast-paced conversations that blogging and social networks facilitate is that a single contribution to debate can create a fresh and intriguing direction for the discussion. The way in which these cyberspace conversations mimic, yet differ from, spoken conversations would be a good field for research.

But today my focus is on a thought-provoking comment made on this blog by Paul Beech in relation to detective series. He asked: when should a series end? Let me quote directly from him:

‘The author running out of steam or simply fancying a change doesn’t quite justify a “never again” ending with a popular character, surely? After all the author might discover a fresh head of steam after a break. But what if the series was conceived thematically as a cycle and this is now complete? Or if the character’s personal goal is achieved – a relationship (Daniel Kind / Hannah Scarlett), reconciliation with a daughter (John Harvey’s Frank Elder), etc. Is it then time, regretfully perhaps, to move on?’

Series can come to an end, or an apparent end, in a variety of ways. Conan Doyle decided to dispose of Sherlock Holmes because he became frustrated that detective stories were getting in the way of his other activities – but, of course, public pressure forced him into a re-think. Nicolas Freeling, presumably bored with his finest creation, killed off Van Der Valk, but then had the detective’s widow investigate subsequent cases.

More commonly, an author decides upon a change of direction, but prudently avoids killing off the detective – just in case. It's still relatively uncommon for series to be conceived thematically as a cycle, although as Paul says, it does happen. Increasingly in the money- and sales-driven business climate of the modern publishing world, the decision is taken out of the author’s hands when the publishers simply decree that they will not produce any more books featuring a particular detective. If the author is lucky, the publisher will accept further books with a different set-up. But often, nowadays, the author is cut adrift. I can think of several friends who have suffered this fate, and it is a great shame.

Oddly, an unsuccessful television series can so disappoint a writer that they are reluctant to write about the character again – the protagonist has, in a sense, been ‘spoiled’ in their eyes. I can think of two British writers, one male and one female, of whom this could be said.

Sometimes, it’s simply the case that the author’s focus switches, and the framework and characters he or she has created in the series do not accommodate a more ambitious approach. This is, you might say, the Dorothy L. Sayers conundrum. Lord Peter Wimsey began almost as a Bertie Wooster type of character, but became a much more serious and substantial figure in later books. Arguably, she might have created a major new series detective, but she preferred to stick with Wimsey. Likewise, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion evolved quite remarkably as the years went by. Today, I think publishers would prefer their authors to make a fresh start.

In my own case, I wrote seven successive books featuring Harry Devlin, as well as a number of short stories. I then decided that I wanted a change, even though it would have been possible to take up a further contract offer. By the time I’d written a non-series book and was ready to return to Harry, my editor had moved on – and my new editor suggested a series with a rural setting. Hence The Coffin Trail and the beginning of the Lake District Mysteries.

However, I never lost my enthusiasm for Harry, and when Liverpool was European Capital of Culture in 2008, it provided the perfect opportunity to revive him in Waterloo Sunset. It was a book I really enjoyed writing, and I think it is possibly the best of all the Devlins. But commercially, there is not as much demand for that series as for the Lake District Mysteries, so it will (unfortunately) be some time before Harry returns. But I hope he will, one day.

As for Paul’s question about Hannah and Daniel getting together – we’ll just have to wait and see! But here's a hint: their developing relationship is the spine of the series, but I didn't conceive the series in cyclical terms. In my mind, it's very much open-ended. A journey without a particular end in sight....


Sunday, 14 February 2010

Dick Francis R.I.P.

I was very sorry to learn today of the death of Dick Francis. Among his many accomplishments was the ability to make novels with a horse racing background appealing to people who, like me, had no interest whatsoever in that particular sport. He managed it with a combination of pacy, no-nonsense writing and careful attention to the detail of his backgrounds. There was always an authentic tang about a Dick Francis novel, and this attracted the approval of reviewers and commentators on crime fiction, as well as the devotion of the countless readers who turned his books into best-sellers. Because, as a jockey, he knew what it was to experience pain, when his heroes got hurt, they felt it. But in the end they triumphed nonetheless.

After previously sampling one or two of his early novels in a casual way, I finally became hooked on Dick Francis in the1980s. Titles such as Banker (a special favourite of mine), Reflex, Proof, Twice Shy and Hot Money were first class examples of the action thriller. His stories often benefited from providing an interesting insight into a world other than horse racing (the title of Banker speaks for itself; Reflex was about photography, and so on.) Of his later books, I particularly enjoyed Come to Grief, which marked the return of his occasional protagonist Sid Halley, and which was rather darker in tone than the typical Francis novel.

His wife Mary, who died some years ago, evidently contributed to the books’ merits; in recent years his son Felix has been acknowledged as a co-author. The Francis brand was impressive; many other sportsmen and women have written thrillers, trying to emulate his success. But none of them, I think it’s safe to say, have quite equalled his achievements.

Quite apart from his novels, Dick Francis also wrote a number of twisty short stories, and when I was putting together an anthology to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Crime Writers’ Association, Mysterious Pleasures, he was generous enough to contribute to the book. His story, ‘The Gift’, is a very good one.

The sustained excellence of his writing career was marked by various honours, notably the CWA Diamond Dagger. There was a lack of pretension about Francis’s writing that, I gather from those who knew him well, was matched by a very likeable personality. Some time ago, I had the chance to meet him in person at long last, but reluctantly had to forego it because of other commitments. I did entertain the hope that, as a member of the Detection Club, one day I might have the chance to chat with him over dinner. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, but like so many others, I appreciated his ability to intrigue and entertain and mourn his passing.

The Affair of the Avalanche Bicycle and Tyre Co. Ltd

I’ve watched an entry in ‘The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’ series, this time based on a short story by Arthur Morrison. Morrison was a significant figure in the early days of the detective story. He is probably best known as the creator of Martin Hewitt, a detective who contrasted with Sherlock Holmes mainly because of his relentless ordinariness. Hewitt may have lacked charisma, but Morrison was an interesting writer, and a more fascinating creation, to my mind, was the protagonist of this episode – Horace Dorrington.

What is interesting about Dorrington is that he is not a good guy. It’s quite clear from the outset that he is cunning and manipulative. He is a private eye who has retrieved embarrassing letters for a wealthy woman, but although he claims to have paid for them, and is amply recompensed, in fact he freely admits to his secretary that he stole them. He takes an interest in the forthcoming flotation of a bicycle company, only to find that a financial scam is afoot. Dorrington being Dorrington, he determines to turn matters to his advantage, and does so effectively and indeed murderously.

Dorrington strikes me as almost a Victorian precursor of Tom Ripley (I realise there are differences, but it’s not a completely misleading comparison, I think.) Certainly, the affable sociopath strikes me as a rather modern figure in some ways, and this is a tribute to Morrison’s concept. The story came from a collection called The Dorrington Deed Box.

In the tv show, Dorrington is played by Peter Vaughan. This is an excellent piece of casting, for few actors do gleeful menace as well as Vaughan. The supporting cast is good, too – and Dorrington’s secretary is played by Petronella Barker, who apparently was the first wife of Sir Anthony (‘Hannibal the Cannibal’) Hopkins. . An entertaining tale that I was glad to watch.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Ann Cleeves on Blue Lightning

As I mentioned the other day, I've invited Ann Cleeves to contribute a post about her new novel. And here it is.

'I first went to Shetland more than 30 years ago. I’d dropped out of university and was offered a temporary job as assistant cook in Fair Isle bird observatory. At that point I wasn’t even sure where Fair Isle was. In fact, it’s Britain’s most remote inhabited island and part of the Shetland group, which is closer to Bergen in Norway than London. Fair Isle is a long way from anywhere – 13 hours overnight by boat from Aberdeen to Shetland mainland and then three hours by mail boat into the Isle.

So I arrived on a stormy spring afternoon to be assistant cook in the bird observatory on Fair Isle, knowing nothing about birds and not being able to cook! I was twenty years old and looking for adventure. That summer changed my life. I met my husband there. I had the space and the time to read more widely than ever before. And I learned to cook. The next year I went back – only this time I was in charge of the kitchen.

Fair Isle is three and a half miles long and a mile and a half wide. It has a permanent population of about 50 people, an airstrip, a natural harbour and a hill covered with heather. The cliffs provide homes for puffins, kittiwakes and gannets. Because of its position it attracts rare birds from east and west. The people live in a scattering of croft houses in the south of the island and are warm and welcoming to incomers. I spent my time off in gossip and listening to stories. I learned to hand milk a cow, clip a sheep and even to knit – never did quite get the hang of the intricate steps of the dances though!

In Blue Lightning, the fourth book in the Shetland quartet, I go back to Fair Isle, where my passion for the islands started. I found it a remarkably easy book to write, because the landscape of the island is fixed in my imagination. I’ve created a fictional field centre in the lighthouse and one of my characters is the cook there. The autumn gales mean that no planes or boats can reach the place, and when a body is found, Jimmy Perez, on holiday with his parents, has to work the case without any technical support. I wanted a dramatic climax to the series and I hope I achieved that.

Will I return to Shetland in my writing now that the quartet is complete? There’ll be a gap certainly because I want to concentrate on Vera Stanhope for a while. But Shetland is such a special place that I’ll certainly be back.'

Friday, 12 February 2010

Margaret Yorke

I’ve mentioned Margaret Yorke before in this blog, partly in connection with that Thirties parody Gory Knight. That book was co-written by a successful novelist called Margaret Rivers Larminie, who happened to be Margaret’s first cousin, once removed. Margaret’s maiden name was Larminie, and when she published her first novel in 1957, she used another family name, Margaret Yorke, as a pseudonym, to avoid confusion with her famous relative.

Margaret’s debut, Summer Flight, was not a crime novel, and she only turned to the genre when she created Patrick Grant, a likeable amateur detective who was to appear in five novels, starting with Dead in the Morning in 1970. She told me that the later Grant stories ‘were set in places I'd been to and Silent Witness was inspired when I was on a skiing holiday. Outside the window in the hotel where I was staying, a chair lift, empty at such an early hour, descended and rose while we were having breakfast and I said to my friends, “What if a body came down on a lift?” It all arose from that.’

In 1974, she published a splendid novel of suspense, No Medals for the Major, which earned much critical acclaim – from H.R.F. Keating and Edmund Crispin, among others. She didn’t make as much money from it as she deserved, as her publishers soon went out of business, but her writing became increasingly serious, often dealing with complex social themes. She says, ‘Cause for Concern, my last novel, is about mothers being battered by their sons. I know of two cases here, in one of which I twice called the police. My difficulty was to devise a set-up totally unlike those I knew about...’

The authentic tang of Margaret Yorke’s work earned her the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for a career of outstanding achievement, in 1999. Margaret is now in her 80s, and contentedly retired. I don’t think she has any plans to write any more novels, but those she has published are well worth seeking out. In addition to No Medals for the Major, I specially recommend The Cost of Silence and Devil’s Work.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Dancing and The Coffin Trail

I’ve received my copies of the audio book version of Dancing for the Hangman. It’s unabridged and published by Soundings. Until a couple of years ago, the audio versions of my novels were on cassette tapes. Now they are in CD format – a sign of changing listener preferences.

Many of my audio books have been read by the excellent Gordon Griffin. This time, because the story is told in the voice of Crippen, an American, the reader is Jeff Harding, who has a number of notable audio books to his credit.

The reprinted UK paperback edition of The Coffin Trail is at last available and I’m really pleased with the look of it. The new cover design that Allison & Busby have come up with really appeals to me. One change which I hadn’t anticipated was the switch in size – this version is larger than its predecessors.

My previous paperbacks have been in ‘A format’, and until a couple of years ago this tended to be the format used by publishers for crime novels. There has, however, been a move towards the larger ‘B format’, which was in the past more typically associated with mainstream ‘literary’ novels, and the publishing director at Allison & Busby, Susie Dunlop, felt that it would be good for the design and style of my books to move in that direction. I’m very pleased about this, and pleased in particular that those readers who were keen to get hold of a fresh copy of the first book in the Lake District series will again be able to do so.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Deadman's Hill

The name of Roger Forsdyke may not yet be very well known to crime fans outside the UK, but to British crime writers it is certainly familiar. Roger has for upwards of a decade been a contributor of a regular column to the CWA’s members’ newsletter, ‘Red Herrings’, offering bags of useful information about policing, and the issues of concern to contemporary police officers. He’s an authoritative source, for he has served with Lincolnshire Police for many years. And now he has produced a crime novel.

I got to know Roger (and his wife Penny) many moons ago, through that marvellous social group, the Northern Chapter of the CWA. We have enjoyed many conversations since – though it has to be said that by the end of an evening at the bar, I sometimes have a crick in my neck, for Roger is a very, very tall chap indeed. A couple of years back, he took over as convenor of the group from Peter Walker, who set up the Northern Chapter. Peter, himself a former cop and creator of Heartbeat, is a hard act to follow, but Roger has tackled the role with aplomb.

Roger’s services as an expert adviser are also in demand and I am one of a number of authors whom he has helped with his customary wit and insight. The closing showdown in The Coffin Trail, for instance, owed something to Roger’s guidance on siege tactics.

Roger has long been keen to follow in Peter’s footsteps in another way, as a writer of fiction. Way back in 1995, I had the pleasure of including a short story he wrote called ‘Video Nasty’ in the anthology Northern Blood 3. But work commitments have kept getting in the way of that long-awaited debut novel.

Now, finally, it is here. Deadman’s Hill is published by Starlode and available via Amazon. It’s set in the early 1960s, and tackles the notorious Hanratty case from a fresh angle. I look forward to reading it. And one thing is for sure – the account of police procedure will be utterly convincing, for this is a writer with enormous personal experience of investigating crimes that most of us only read or write about.

Incidentally, I'm indebted to Margot Kinberg, and Uriah of Crime Scraps, themselves two bloggers of note, for giving me a Prolific Blogger Award. Because of domestic commitments too time-consuming and tedious to harp on about, I'm going to wimp out of making futher nominations, but I do appreciate the honour, and at the risk of being repetitious, I should again say how much I appreciate the warmth and goodwill that abounds within what one might call the crime blogging community.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Blue Lightning: review

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Ann Cleeves’ latest novel, Blue Lightning, which is billed as ‘the final instalment in the award-winning Shetland Quartet’, and I read it with much pleasure over the Christmas holiday period. Now it has been published by Macmillan, and – whilst declaring my interest as an old friend of Ann’s, and a fellow member of Murder Squad – I can recommend it wholeheartedly as perhaps the best book yet from a truly accomplished writer.

I love islands, and the atmosphere of Shetland is splendidly evoked, from the opening scene when Jimmy Perez is bringing Fran, to whom he is devoted, by plane to Fair Isle, where he comes from. Fran is to be introduced to Jimmy’s parents, but soon murder interrupts the visit. The victim is a scientist called Angela, an expert in ornithology – and the killer has threaded feathers through her hair.

We are presented with a classic example of the ‘closed circle’ mystery, where the culprit can only be one of a limited number of people on the island. This type of story makes real demands of a modern author – how do you maintain suspense, while remaining true to character? The answer lies in a combination of good writing and careful structuring of the story. The pace develops steadily and is never allowed to flag.

What makes this book especially notable, however, is the extremely poignant ending. For me, the final plot development was quite unexpected and will stay in my mind for a long time. I’ve enjoyed Ann Cleeves’ books since before we first met, and I’m delighted to say that, in my opinion, this is a fine mystery which deserves all the acclaim that I’m sure it will receive.

This is a big year for Ann, as it sees the start of the television career of her detective Vera Stanhope. In the meantime, I've asked Ann to contribute a guest piece about her approach to writing Blue Lightning and this will appear shortly.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Layer Cake

I like good gangster movies, but mediocre ones can be very tedious – and the really good ones are rather thin on the ground. So I approached the film of J.J. Connolly’s book Layer Cake with some trepidation, drawn as much by the fact that it starred the excellent Daniel Craig as by optimism that I’d enjoy the story.

But enjoy it I did – very much. In fact, Layer Cake now lines up alongside Get Carter, The Long Good Friday and The Italian Job as one of my absolute favourite British gangster films. Craig is predictably cool and classy in the lead role, but he is assisted by a first rate cast which includes, as senior Bad Guys, those fine actors Kenneth Cranham and Michael Gambon, both of whom perform with gusto.

The plot is complex – multi-layered like some cakes, in fact. Briefly, Craig is planning to retire young to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, but a hapless henchman called Duke lands him in the mire by stealing a vast quantity of drugs from some seriously menacing Serbian villains, while Craig finds it impossible to keep both Cranham and Gambon off his back. There are some very violent moments, which are not for the faint-hearted – Cranford this is not! - but also some very funny lines and scenes.

Craig moves smoothly from one messy situation to another, pausing only (though this is entirely understandable, I think) to pick up Sienna Miller, who dumps Duke’s unstable nephew, with consequences that in the end prove very unfortunate. I liked the pace and twists of the story-line, and as long as you don’t mind violence and bad language, this is a film that can definitely be recommended.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

A New Floating Admiral?

Round robin detective novels fascinate me. I’ve mentioned before the round robin books produced by the Detection Club, such as The Scoop, Behind The Screen, Ask a Policeman and most notably The Floating Admiral. These were stories written by a group of writers, with one person kicking off the book with an opening chapter, and then others developing the story in turn.

I’ve now fulfilled an ambition by participating in a round robin book of this kind. It’s not complete at present, though, and subject to confidentiality, so I can’t say too much about it – but it’s not a product of the Detection Club this time.

A question that is often asked is whether such books are planned in advance. Certainly, the project in which I’ve participated has not involved pre-planning – everyone has made it up as they have gone along! I was asked to contribute the sixth of ten projected chapters and I found it a very enjoyable experience. The fact that I have in the past finished The Lazarus Widow, which Bill Knox began, stood me in good stead.

Will the project see the light of day? I really hope so, and all being well it will happen, because a number of much more eminent writers than me are involved. But one thing is for sure. I really don’t envy the person who has to write the final chapter and bring all the strands of the story together!

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Ticket to Ride

Ed Gorman, whose latest novel, Ticket to Ride, I recently devoured, is a man of many accomplishments. His blog is required reading for me. It’s full of interest, and has introduced me to such good and diverse things as the novels of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding and a terrific CD tribute to Dusty Springfield by Shelby Lynne. As a book editor, he was kind enough to include ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ in a ‘best of year’ anthology, and I first came across him many years ago, when he phoned me to ask if an article I’d written for a magazine called ‘Million’ (sadly long defunct) could be reprinted in ‘Mystery Scene’, a wonderfully resilient publication whose success owes much to his hard work. Although we exchange emails from time to time, we’ve never met. However, through his splendid writing, somehow I feel that I have the privilege of knowing him quite well.

Above all, he is a masterly crime writer. If you haven’t come across his short stories, check out Famous Blue Raincoat, a collection published by Crippen & Landru, or his collected stories, in two gorgeously produced volumes, The Moving Coffin and Out There in the Darkness. Of his novels that I’ve read, I might previously have said that The Night Remembers is my favourite. But Ticket to Ride is perhaps even better.

It’s the latest instalment in the Sam McCain series. The books take their titles from songs of the period in which they are set – so now we are up to the mid-Sixties, and a time when the US was in the throes of war in a distant land. The book’s first scene involves an anti-Vietnam protest, but although Gorman’s heart is with the protesters, it is a mark of his sensitivity as a novelist that he portrays the people on the other side of the argument with a very human touch. When a murder occurs, Sam (a lawyer in his Iowa home town) has the unenviable task of defending an unattractive client. But he believes in the man’s innocence, and sets about discovering the truth behind the crime.

Despite Sam’s legal background, this book is more akin to a private eye novel than a legal thriller. It is short and snappy, with some wonderfully witty lines. The plot reaches back into the murky dealings of the town’s past, but the greatest appeal of the novel is the depiction of small town America at a time, well within living memory yet in some ways remarkably different from today, when the Beatles were perceived as a threat to moral order by much the same people who supported an unwinnable war.

This particular book hasn’t been published as yet in the UK, and I’m puzzled that, so far, no British crime publisher has really got behind Ed Gorman on a long term basis in the way that the quality of his writing deserves. Perhaps Ticket to Ride will make the breakthrough. Certainly, it is a smoothly accomplished piece of entertainment from a very skilled practitioner.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Memories and Inspiration

I would like to say again how deeply grateful I am for the kind comments and messages, by email and otherwise, that I’ve received following my mother’s death. When I wrote about her, I wanted to put down in words something about how much she meant to me – perhaps it’s a natural reaction for a writer to write about such things - and doing so did help.

The people who have been in touch include old friends, and others whom I’ve never met, and some blog readers who haven’t commented previously. The generosity I’ve been shown is a reminder that so many people are very kind.

Of course, there was much I could have added to my blog post about Mum. I’ll just mention that her anecdotes (of which she had a seemingly limitless fund) directly inspired two short stories that I have published. ‘War Rations’ was inspired by her memories of war-time evacuation with a group of schoolchildren from the poorer parts of Leeds (though I was careful to ensure the female teacher in the story bore no resemblance to anyone I knew…) ‘The Basement’ took its story-line from her reminiscences of a real-life war-time tragedy which I found quite haunting. It was a case of accidental death which, because I am a mystery writer, I re-imagined as a murder. Both stories appear in my collection Where Do You Find Your Ideas? and in the preface to each I explained who gave me those particular ideas. She liked that!