One of the biggest dangers for any writer, at least in my opinion, is that of finding yourself on a treadmill, perhaps trapped in a formulaic type of writing. Even if it’s a winning formula, there is a real risk of becoming stale, and of losing the excitement that is so important to writing. If an author doesn’t feel excited by what he or she writes, there’s little chance that the reader will be excited, either. So it’s very important to keep fresh.
That’s one of the reasons why I like writing short stories – not only a break from writing a novel, but also an opportunity to change pace, and direction. You can take risks with a short story that may seem impossible with a novel. Many writers can’t face the prospect of writing something experimental for a year that in the end simply doesn’t work out. But experimenting with a short story means that you are only sacrificing, say, a couple of weeks’ work if the story doesn’t gell at all.
A few months ago I decided to have a crack at a type of story that has always interested me, and that I’ve never tried before. I’d been reading a book about ghost stories and I couldn’t resist having a go at a ghost story myself. Writing ‘No Flowers’ was a very enjoyable experience indeed, and once I’d finished it, I returned to my novel-in-progress refreshed.
Rather speculatively, I submitted ‘No Flowers’ to ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’, and I’m delighted to report that it’s just been accepted for publication. Of course, it’s very different from my ‘usual’ brand of crime writing, but over the years, I have tried my hand at a fairly wide range of stories, and I’d like to continue doing so. It’s not because I’m dissatisfied with crime writing – on the contrary. I’m sure this approach helps me to return to, say, a Lake District Mystery with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. As to whether I’ll write more ghost stories at a future date – well, why not?
Wednesday, 30 June 2010
Tuesday, 29 June 2010
One of the drawbacks of combining a full-time job with writing is that it’s far from easy to fit in events where one can meet readers (and prospective readers!) But it’s something I enjoy a good deal when I can manage it, and I had a bumper day last Saturday.
I’d been invited to take part in the Middlesbrough Literary Festival, and I drove up during the morning to Acklam Library to give a talk about Dr Crippen’s life and misadventures. I’ve given this talk several times, and there are usually plenty of questions – but never as many as on Saturday afternoon. Tremendous fun.
Then it was over to the centre of town, where I stopped off at my hotel and had a quick wander round before heading for the impressive Central Library to host a Victorian murder mystery evening. The cast of suspects included Alex, from Southside Broadcasting – and I hope to include podcasts of the interviews we did on my website in due course – and the husband of Gill Appleton, who organised both events. The audience was enthusiastic and the top prize was won by Allison Rae.
I was pretty weary by the end of the day, so much so that I didn’t make much progress with the novel I’m reading – the new one by Reg Hill – but the effort was absolutely worthwhile. Two pleasant and very different events with a good audience vibe on each occasion. I really do hope that public sector spending cuts don’t reduce the scope for libraries to hold events and festivals. They are great for writers – but even more importantly, they are great for bringing readers together, and fostering a sense of community.
Monday, 28 June 2010
Yesterday I returned to somewhere which holds a special place in my affections – the Crown Hotel in Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire. This is where, almost 23 years ago, the inaugural meeting of the Northern Chapter of the CWA was held. And our latest lunch took place there on a day of marvellous sunshine. Numbers were down from the usual levels, no doubt due to the competing demands of the World Cup, the One Day Cricket International, Wimbledon and Glastonbury (well, maybe not Glastonbury) but as usual it was a convivial occasion.
The convenor of the Chapter is Roger Forsdyke, whose debut novel I covered in this blog some time ago, and it was great to see his predecessor, Peter Walker, in rude health, along with his wife Rhoda. I shall always be grateful for the kindness that the Walkers showed to me when I was a newcomer in the crime writing world.
Among the topics of conversation were the CWA anthology and a possible week-end symposium for Northern crime writers. I was seated with John Dean, the CWA’s Press Officer, and Christine Poulson, the Membership Secretary, both of whom are very agreeable companions. I did take a photo of Chrissie to accompany this post, but Blogger's image upload facility is defeating me at present, so I shall have to keep it for another occasion!
The splendid food was served with great speed and efficiency, no doubt reflecting the staff’s eagerness to watch the World Cup match between England and Germany. I raced back home in the hope of catching the second half on TV. However, the M62 was closed, so I did not arrive home until after the final whistle. But given England’s abject performance, perhaps it was just as well.
Sunday, 27 June 2010
One of the articles in the new issue of CADS, from regular contributor Liz Gilbey, provides a very interesting account of the Australian born Golden Age crime writer Helen Simpson, whose first detective story appeared in 1925, when she was just 28.
I learned a lot about Simpson from this article that I didn’t know before. She was an early, and youthful, member of the Detection Club, and contributed to The Floating Admiral, Ask a Policeman and Anatomy of Murder. But she did a good deal more. In 1926 she contributed dialogue to the Hitchcock film Sabotage, and a book she co-authored, Enter Sir John, was filmed by Hitchcock as Murder! After her death, Hitchcock also made a movie from her book Under Capricorn.
Enter Sir John was the firs of three novels she co-wrote with Clemence Dane (who, I was startled to learn, ‘was Britain’s most successful writer’between the wars. A year after the novel was published, Dorothy L. Sayers published Strong Poison, which had some similarities. Sayers was, in fact, one of her closest friends.
Sadly, Simpson died of cancer in 1940, at the age of 43. As Liz Gilbey says, she was ‘on the brink of greater writing success and a new political career’ – she was a Liberal parliamentary candidate from 1938. Her premature death no doubt helps explain why she is now seldom mentioned by crime fans, but this first class article made me want to read more of her work.
Saturday, 26 June 2010
Dating from 1942, Paul Temple Intervenes is an early radio drama written by Francis Durbridge has been exhumed from the BBC archives and is now available as a two-CD set. The sound quality (especially of the sometimes startling incidental music) is not great, but so many gems have been lost by the BBC that one is grateful for those that have survived. And I enjoyed listening to it whilst commuting.
This was one of the first Temple serials, and the writing, production and acting were not as slick as they later became. Carl Bernard and Bernadette Hodgson are, for instance, not as appealing in the roles of suave detective novelist and amateur sleuth Temple and his wife Steve, as Geoffrey Coke and Marjorie Westbury. The famous theme tune, ‘The Coronation Scot’, had not yet been adopted, and the dialogue is sometimes ponderous (people keep saying things like, ‘I do not think I have had the pleasure, Mrs Temple’ and are laboriously well-mannered on every occasion).
The plot has its eccentric moments. A serial killer called The Marquis has seven victims to his name, and yet we never learn much about the victims, nor why they were killed. It is taken for granted that The Marquis is a blackmailer, but we never find out how he discovered so much incriminating material. The story is really taken up with the hunt for The Marquis (whose techniques for avoiding justice struck me as pretty weird) and there are the usual cliffhanger endings for each of the eight episodes.
With so many drawbacks, perhaps I shouldn’t have liked this serial as much as I did. Of course, it’s very dated, but it definitely has an eccentric charm, to add to its considerable historic interest. As usual, Durbridge shifts suspicion from one suspect to another with consummate ease. He had a great gift for maintaining suspense, and if you like old radio shows, I think you may enjoy this one as I did.
Friday, 25 June 2010
It’s safe to say that, of Kingsley Amis’s books, The Crime of the Century is one of the least known, even to experienced crime writers. So, although Amis remains a well-read author, this quirky little volume is a suitable subject for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books for Friday.
I first became aware of The Crime of the Century when it appeared in a rather good, though regrettably short-lived paperback series known as Dent Mastercrime. This, in 1987, represented the story’s first incarnation in book form – it had begun life as a newspaper serial twelve years earlier.
Amis provided a very interesting introduction, explaining how he came to write a mystery for The Sunday Times – basically, for the money. He says, ‘all writing is and should be to some extent a process of imitation’ and adds that he found writing the book ‘a most valuable piece of training or refresher course in the basic fictional skills’. He clearly enjoyed writing the story, even if he did find it quite hard work.
I enjoyed reading it, too. I think it’s fair to say that the early part of the mystery is the strongest – a girl is found stabbed in the back, and proves to be the first victim in a series of killings. The main protagonists are Detective Superintendent Bill Barry, and a detective novelist suffering from writer’s block.
When I first bought this book, having a novel of my own published was still a dream. But I did think I would fancy writing a serial one day, and I still do – The Sunday Times only has to ask! But inevitably they prefer star names like Amis, and although he wasn’t the best mystery plotter in the world, this is a creditable effort, which does not deserve to be completely forgotten.
Thursday, 24 June 2010
Witness to Murder is a 1954 movie which I stumbled across the other day and found surprisingly enjoyable. The premise is engaging, if not totally original – a woman sees a murder committed in the apartment block across the road, but can’t find anyone to believe her story, and becomes increasingly paranoid.
So we are in Rear Window territory, although Cornell Woolrich wasn’t responsible for the screenplay, which was the work of director Chester Erskine. The cinematographic style takes Witness to Murder into the realm of film noir, and despite a few implausible plot twists, and scenes which veer into high melodrama, overall this is an effective piece of movie-making.
The key to the film’s success lies in the casting of the two stars. Barbara Stanwyck is almost as good playing the panic-stricken good girl as she is at portraying the dark-hearted bad girl in Double Indemnity. The oily George Sanders is suitably nasty as Richter, the violence-obsessive who strangles a prostitute and then sets out to destabilise, discredit and ultimately kill the witness to his crime. To rub in how unpleasant Richter is, he turns out to be an ex-Nazi who rants away in an explosive burst of guttural German when provoked. Sanders played so many appalling rotters in his time that I really do hope he was a delightful chap in real life. Fortunately, a nice cop falls for Stanwyck, and though his attempt to prove her story correct draws a blank time and again, he doesn’t give up.
This isn’t a major film, but the suspense is maintained throughout with a climactic scene worthy of Vertigo, and that coupled with the performance of the two stars explains why it has worn well. I’m glad I watched it.
Wednesday, 23 June 2010
The long-term health of the crime fiction genre depends on a number of things, including the willingness of publishers to bring out the work of new writers – and to keep publishing capable writers for more than a couple of novels. All too often, there is a tendency for new or newish writers to be picked up on, say, a two-book deal and then dumped thereafter if the figures don’t look good. I understand the economic reasons for this, but short-term thinking has major downsides in most businesses, and I doubt if publishing is an exception. Authors need to be supported over a number of years if they are to develop the confidence to make the most of their talent.
A good example of a small publisher which nurtures new, or relatively little-known, writers is Crème de la Crime. Their books are paperback originals, and thanks to the good judgment of Lynne Patrick, who runs the company, they have introduced a number of very talented writers to an appreciative readership.
Two of their recent novels sound interesting. Roz Southey has just produced her fourth book , Swords and Song, which carries praise from that accomplished writer Sarah Rayne. Southey is a musicologist and historian, based in the North East of England, and her interests inform her historical mysteries. In this one, her musician detective Charlie Patterson finds that a young woman he knows has been murdered and he becomes (as series detectives are wont to do) drawn into the mystery.
The Broken Token by Chris Nickson is another historical mystery, this time a debut. A map of the historic ‘town’ of Leeds, where the action takes place, is helpfully provided. I do like maps in books. Here, Richard Nottingham, Constable of Leeds, discovers a murdered man and woman. He knew both victims – the woman was a former housemaid of his – and so, as with Southey’s book, he has a personal stake in solving the mystery.
The idea of a detective having such a personal stake in the investigation is a very familiar one – I used it in my own first novel, All the Lonely People, in which Harry Devlin’s wife is killed – but it’s effective nevertheless. I look forward to reading these books.
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Margot’s guest blog on Saturday about writers who are good at both novels and short stories brought a number of names to my mind. Some of them – such as Ruth Rendell, Reg Hill, and Peter Lovesey – are famous. But I’d like to highlight a friend of mine who isn’t (yet) as well-known, yet who delivers real value both at novel length and in the short form.
This is Kate Ellis, whose latest Wesley Peterson book, The Flesh Tailor, has just fallen into my clutches. The Wesley series is very well established, and many of the novels have quite splendid titles that immediately make you want to find out what the story is about. The Marriage Hearse and The Plague Maiden are examples, and The Flesh Tailor itself is another. She also writes books set in a thinly disguised York (aka Eborby) featuring a cop called Joe Plantagenet.
In addition, Kate is a highly capable writer of short stories. She has contributed several to anthologies edited by the prolific Mike Ashley, some to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and some to anthologies which I have edited. Her short fiction is very varied, and she has in the past been nominated for a CWA Dagger.
When I asked CWA members to submit stories for possible inclusion in the next CWA anthology, Kate was one of the first to respond, and her story was – predictably – both polished and enjoyable. It is called ‘Feather’ and I’m hoping very much to include it in the book.
Monday, 21 June 2010
Transworld have sent me a sampler of book extracts entitled The Serial Thrillers (sub-title ‘Fourteen Killer Reads’) to publicise a group of their leading authors whose latest books appear in 2010. This strikes me as a good marketing ploy, although not unique, and I’d guess it’s something which many authors published elsewhere will find quite enviable.
How you market crime fiction (or, indeed, any fiction) effectively is one of the questions over which much ink has been spilt for years. There isn't any easy answer, but trying to be innovative and interesting is probably a large part of the answer. Sadly, though, the solutions that reach the widest audiences tend to demand substantial investment of cash.
I was published by the Bantam imprint of Transworld in the early 90s, but in fact my hardback publisher was Piatkus. In those long ago days, Piatkus was an independent house, and they didn’t publish paperback editions, but they did secure a paperback deal with Bantam, who duly published the first four Harry Devlin novels. No samplers then, unfortunately, and although Bantam did try to market the books by selling them at what were then very competitive prices (£2.99 for a new paperback, I recall – bargain!) I didn’t reach the best-seller lists. And then Piatkus started publishing paperbacks themselves.
Now things are different in the publishing world. Piatkus are no longer independent, but part of a large group, and large publishers tend to focus on a limited number of writers, who are sometimes promoted heavily and effectively, as with this sampler. I think it’s a pity that many good writers of the ‘mid-list’ don’t benefit from similar initiatives, but that doesn’t meant that the initiatives aren’t welcome.
The authors featured in this sampler include such major figures as Mo Hayder, Tess Gerritsen, and Simon Kernick, along with one of my own recently discovered faves, Christopher Fowler. There is an extract from Bryant and May Off the Rails, and that is one of the Transworld titles that I definitely look forward to devouring.
Sunday, 20 June 2010
I mentioned recently Lindsey Davis’s new companion-style book, published by Century, about her enormously popular series featuring Marcus Didius Falco. If you are a Falco fan, it will surely be required reading and even if you are not, there is enough of interest in the book to ensure that you will become intrigued by Davis and her writing.
The strength of the Falco books lies in Davis’ humorous and intelligent writing, and her characteristic style is much in evidence here: ‘My opinions may be grumpy and maverick,’ she says in her Introduction, ‘On the other hand, I hold those opinions because, after twenty years of loving and living with this subject, I think I am right.’
She adds: ‘I wanted to give you glossy illustrations, pull-out maps and give-away models. Sadly, we are constrained to simple and black-and-white illustrations; this is ‘due to the Recession’ (That old story! Falco would scoff)’
There is a lot of information about the Falco books and characters, but for me, the early parts of the book, where Lindsey Davis writes bravely and unsentimentally about her own life, including a number of tragic episodes, and about her approach to writing, are especially fascinating. She has plenty of opinions about writing and politics, and I found them enjoyable to read (even including one or two opinions I don’t necessarily agree with!) I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a book in the crime genre quite like this, and Century are to be congratulated for having commissioned it, just as Lindsey Davis is to be congratulated for having written it.
There is, by the way, a new Falco hardback just out as well. It is called Nemesis, and I look forward to reading it.
Saturday, 19 June 2010
Margot Kinberg needs no introduction to readers of her insightful blog, ‘Confessions of a Mystery Novelist’ or her two novels, Publish or Perish (great title!) and B-Very Flat. Her blog posts are not merely regular but detailed and very skilfully conceived, leaving the rest of us in awe at her industry as well as her depth of knowledge. She also manages to find time to be an associate professor in San Diego.
I greatly appreciate her comments on this blog, and I’m delighted she has agreed to contributed a guest post today, as part of her current blog tour, on the pros and cons of short stories as compared to novels. Over to Margot...
‘First, thank you, Martin, for your kind invitation to guest blog. I am truly honored. One of the appealing aspects of crime fiction is that it can take any number of forms. Many crime fiction authors focus on one of those forms or subgenres (e.g. police procedurals, psychological thrillers, historical crime fiction, and so on). Mastering even one of those subgenres or forms takes talent. There are some authors, though, who’ve mastered more than one form of crime fiction. That requires even more talent and hard work, since crime fiction is not the same across the genre. For example, let’s consider crime fiction short stories versus crime fiction novels.
In novel form, a well-written crime fiction story usually involves solidly-developed characters, a strong plot that keeps the reader guessing, and the buildup of tension and suspense as the story goes on. Crime fiction short stories, though, are quite different in some ways. For one thing, there’s little opportunity to develop characters, so the author has to let the reader know as much as possible about the character in a very efficient way. Also, there’s little opportunity for the buildup of tension and suspense. The author has to convey the suspense with far fewer words. There are other differences, too, of course. The linear approach to telling a story that can work well for a short story can be quite unsatisfying in a novel. The slow buildup of tension that can make a novel unforgettable is too slow for the short story. Given these differences, most authors choose one or another of these forms of crime fiction. Some, though, master both.
Arthur Conan Doyle is perhaps best known for his short stories, especially the fifty-six short stories in which his sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, features. However, Conan Doyle also wrote four Holmes novels. In fact, Holmes first appears, not in a short story, but in the novel A Study in Scarlet. In that novel, Holmes and his new room-mate, Dr. Watson, discover the murderer of Enoch Drebber and his friend, Joseph Stangerson, who’ve been staying in the same rooming-house. At first, Drebber’s murder is blamed on his landlady’s son, since Drebber had been making advances on the boy’s sister. But then, it looks as though Stangerson may be guilty. When Stangerson, too, is murdered, Holmes looks into both men’s histories, and the clues that connect the deaths. He finds that Drebber’s murder and that of Stangerson are connected with their past lives. Conan Doyle wrote three other Holmes novels, as well as other novels of historical fiction and numerous other novels and stories.
Agatha Christie is usually remembered for her novels, in particular those featuring her sleuths Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. However, she also wrote several short story collections. Some of them, such as The Labors of Hercules, Partners in Crime and The Thirteen Problems feature her famous sleuths. Other collections of her stories, though, have featured other characters. One of the most memorable of Christie’s short stories is The Witness for the Prosecution, which appears in The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories. In that story, Leonard Vole is tried for the murder of wealthy Emily French, who befriended him without knowing that Vole was married. Vole’s attorney wants to enlist Vole’s wife, Romaine, as a defense witness, but in one of the story’s many twists, she plans to appear as a witness for the prosecution. Romaine Vole’s reasons for appearing for the prosecution (and, of course, the outcome of the trial) make for compelling reading.
The writing team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, better known as Ellery Queen, wrote dozens of Ellery Queen novels from 1929’s The Roman Hat Mystery through 1971’s A Fine and Private Place. While a few of those novels didn’t feature Ellery Queen himself, the vast majority of them did. The prolific “Queen team” also wrote several short story collections featuring Queen. One of their more famous short stories is The Adventure of the One Penny Black, in which Queen solves a baffling series of thefts. Several copies of the same book have been stolen from the owners. At the same time, there’s been a robbery of a very valuable stamp from the collection of the Ulm brothers, a pair of stamp collectors. In an interesting twist, Queen finds out how these events are all tied together.
Ross McDonald, who created the famous private investigator Lew Archer, was also talented both at novels and short stories. In the course of his career, McDonald wrote nearly twenty novels featuring his empathetic but world-weary private detective. Many consider Lew Archer to be one of the groundbreaking characters in the genre. McDonald was also the author of several Lew Archer short stories, including The Singing Pigeon. In that story, Archer’s on his way back to Los Angeles from Mexico when he decides to stop for the night at the small, family-owned Siesta Motel. All is not as peaceful as it looks at the hotel, as Archer finds out when he discovers that there’s been a murder there. He also discovers that the murder is connected to the disappearance of a young woman he met at the hotel. McDonald wrote other short stories, too, that don’t feature Archer.
And then there’s Ed McBain, the author of the very popular 87th Precinct series featuring Detective Steve Carella. He, too, is well-known for his novels, but he’s also written several short stories. One of them is One Down, the story of Ben, a traveling sales representative who finds a unique way to deal with his domestic complications. This and McBain’s other stories are an interesting departure from his 87th Precinct series, but they still have his distinctive style.
Ruth Rendell has also carved a literary niche for herself as a novelist and as a short story writer. She is, of course, the author of the popular Inspector Reg Wexford series of novels. She’s also written several standalone novels, both as Ruth Rendell and as Barbara Vine. Novels such as From Doon With Death (Rendell) and A Dark Adapted Eye (Vine) have established Rendell’s reputation as a novelist. She’s also, though, written several collections of short stories. Her stories have the same intensity that her novels do and she’s been able to create memorable scenes and characters with them. For instance, in Catamount, which appears in Piranha to Scurfy and Other Stories, we meet Nora and Gordon, who visit their friends, Carrie and Chuck, who live in the Rocky Mountains. Over the course of several visits, Nora finds that she has a certain fear of how big and even un-tamed everything is. It turns out that her fears are justified when a severe storm strikes the area where she’s staying on the same night that Chuck falls ill and desperately needs medical assistance. As we follow Nora’s attempt to help her friends, we see how Rendell explores the psychology of fear.
I would be more than remiss not to mention the contributions my talented blog host has made both to the world of crime fiction novels and the world of crime fiction short stories. Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin novels and Lake District novels have justly received commendation. They feature strong characters, engaging plots and unexpected twists and turns. His recent novel, Dancing For the Hangman is a fascinating fictional look at a real-life murder case, the Crippen case, from the point of view of Crippen himself. He’s written other novels and non-fiction as well. But Edwards is also an award-winning short-story writer. Some of his stories feature his sleuth, attorney Harry Devlin. Others don’t. For instance, in 24 Hours from Tulsa, we meet Lomas, a sales and marketing director for whom the world is changing so fast that he’s struggling to survive in it. His children have grown up so fast that they’re nearly strangers to him. He’s found out his wife’s been unfaithful. His company is putting more and more pressure on him and his colleagues to keep increasing sales in a world where people are purchasing online. Even the traffic patterns are no longer what they used to be. Lomas’ stress at having to deal with this new world is causing some people, including his boss, to think he’s “losing it,” and that only adds to Lomas’ anger, resentment and, in a sense, bewilderment at what’s happening around him. We feel Lomas’ increasing rage and fear as, desperate to retain some control over his life, he takes a drastic step.
Writing crime fiction stories in any form can be challenging. Writing different forms of crime fiction takes particular flexibility and talent, and I salute those who accomplish this successfully. Which are your favorite authors who write both novels and short stories?
Thanks once again, Martin, for your hospitality.’
Friday, 18 June 2010
My latest entry for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is by an author who is very far from forgotten. Nina Bawden is a writer of considerable distinction, now in her 80s, but it’s often overlooked that, early in her career, she published a couple of detective novels.
I came across The Odd Flamingo when it appeared in a series of Jubilee reprints celebrating 50 years of the Collins Crime Club, back in 1980. Julian Symons selected and introduced a dozen titles, many of which were relatively obscure. All are worth seeking out, especially the books by Shelley Smith and C.Daly King.
The Odd Flamingo is a first person story, narrated by solicitor Will Hunt. Humphrey Stone, a respectable head teacher, gets himself into embarrassing difficulties and his wife calls on Will for help. Murder follows, and Will’s enquiries lead to a strange and disreputable club called The Odd Flamingo. The book first appeared in 1954, and inevitably aspects of it are dated, but Bawden’s ability to tell a good story is an enduring strength.
Symons’ comments are characteristically astute: ‘The fact that it is the work of a young writer, lacking experience although not skill, shows at times. Will seems occasionally too naive to be true, and the club...has a slightly unreal air. Partly, no doubt, this was because Nina Bawden didn’t know such clubs well...’ But he liked the book (‘an ingenious puzzle and an interesting novel’) , and so did I.
Thursday, 17 June 2010
Christopher Nolan is now an acclaimed film director, with massive successes such as Memento and The Prestige under his belt. But he began in 1999 with a low budget black and white movie called Following, which is short, sharp and compelling.
I found the premise fascinating. A young wannabe writer gets into the habit of following strangers just ‘to see where they go’. He isn’t really a stalker, just an eccentric loner, and really quite a decent person in many ways – but very naïve. His innocence proves his undoing.
When he follows a young man of a similar age, he finds that the man realises he is being followed, and challenges him. The man is called Cobb, and it turns out that he has another strange obsession. He likes burgling houses, just for the fun of it. And the foolish follower is persuaded to join in the fun, with ultimately fatal consequences.
This is a clever story, with a non-linear narrative that is not easy at first to figure out, but makes pretty good sense in the end. I found it satisfying, and I enjoyed the performance of Jeremy Theobald as the hapless protagonist. No wonder this creepy and intricate movie launched Nolan into the Premier League of directors of complex suspense movies.
Wednesday, 16 June 2010
I’ve been meaning to devour another Lee Child for ages, after loving The Visitor, and now I’ve just begun to listen to an audio book version of Echo Burning, featuring his regular hero Jack Reacher. It’s made a good start.
Lee Child has not become a global best-seller by accident. There are reasons for his success (just as there are always reasons for great success) and writers like me can, I’m sure, learn a good deal from studying the methods of such a writer, even if his books are different from the type of story that we usually produce.
Echo Burning begins at a breakneck pace, and that is, of course, part of Child’s secret. Reacher escapes from his hotel room in Texas just in time to evade arrest by a cop whom he attacked (under much provocation) in a bar the previous night. He wants to hitch a lift out of town, and is soon picked up by a glamorous woman who interrogates him about his background. It becomes clear she is after something – but can she be trusted?
Meanwhile, a trio of hired killers murder a man whose car they stop in the middle of nowhere. What are they up to, and what will happen if and when their paths cross that of Reacher?
I want to find out more, which means that Lee Child has already hooked me, as he has hooked so many other readers. I shall report in due course on whether the novel ultimately lives up to its early promise.
Tuesday, 15 June 2010
The second long series from Swedish TV of Wallander came to an end with an excellent episode, The Collector. Again, Krister Henriksson was excellent as the eponymous cop, but this was another show which showed the strength of the whole team of cops at Ystad, and that strength is a key reason for the success of the series.
In this story, the young trainees, Pontus and Isabelle, have reached the end of their apprenticeship and are faced with decisions about the future. Isabelle wants to travel, and upsets Pontus by making it clear that she wants to do so on her own. But when a woman who is murdered by masked robbers in her own home turns out to be someone Isabelle knows from her gym, the young woman finds herself drawn into the enquiry.
At a boxing match, Isabelle is recognised by one of the fighters, and it turns out that this is Patrik, who along with his brother is not only a hardened criminal with psychopathic tendencies, but also a former lover of Isabelle. This part of the story stretched credulity, but was done just about convincingly enough to be believable. Isabelle is reluctant to admit her past misdemeanours to Wallander, but inevitably things start to turn nasty. Very nasty.
The Wallander stories are, of course, far from the first to highlight cop teams rather than focusing exclusively on a single character. Ed McBain was an early exponent of this kind of story; I have vague memories of watching a few 87th Precinct tv shows when I was very young, though I’m not sure how they would hold up today. The McBain books, however, have lasted pretty well, and I expect that Henning Mankell’s novels will achieve similar longevity. Meanwhile, I’m not sure if there will be any more Wallanders from Swedish TV, but this series at least will stay in my memory for a long time. It has been excellent.
Monday, 14 June 2010
I did wonder about making this blog a football free zone for the duration of the World Cup. The hype about the tournament is predictably excessive, and a low point was reached on Saturday, I thought, when both Sky News and BBC News led with the ‘breaking news’ that the England team’s coach had arrived at the stadium before the match. As my wife wearily pointed out, it would have been more newsworthy if they’d decided not to turn up (and poor Rob Green probably wishes he hadn’t...)
However, the fact is that I grew up in a football household, and although I was a hopeless player, I’m still very keen on the game – my Dad’s life revolved around it, and as a result, so did mine and my mother’s. One book I am truly proud of is the 400 page history of the local club, Northwich Victoria, that he wrote over the last ten years of his life. Happily, it was published to considerable acclaim shortly before he died, and that gave him enormous, and well deserved, satisfaction. Quite an achievement for a man who left school at the age of 14.
After he died, I wrote a short story in his memory which has been published a couple of times. It was called ‘Penalty’, and the story centres around an old football ground, not dissimilar from the Drill Field in Northwich, which my father discovered was the oldest ground on which senior football had been played continuously, anywhere in the world. Football is a sport replete in tradition, and the story draws on the history of the game. I think it is sad that, a few years ago, the Drill Field was sold off and houses were built upon it. A piece of sporting heritage, lost forever.
Football has featured in some of my other stories, notably a Harry Devlin mystery called ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which involved dark doings in the Liverpool football world. Several crime novels have had football themes or elements, but not many strike me as truly satisfactory. My first crime novel, Dead Shot, was no masterpiece either, and I was sensible enough never to try to get it published. I’m not sure if anyone has produced a mystery with a World Cup setting. If not, it may just be that the current tournament will inspire someone to write one...
Sunday, 13 June 2010
Yesterday I participated in an enjoyable crime readers’ day event held at Nottingham Central Library. After talks by others in the morning, I hosted my Victorian murder mystery event in the afternoon. All very enjoyable (and well performed by the cast) as I calmed down after the trauma of getting completely lost in Nottingham’s Kafkaesque one-way traffic system. I like solving mysteries, but trying to find the library’s cunningly concealed car park defeated me...
One thing that struck me forcibly was that all but one of those participating in the event was female. And it is commonplace for the talks and events at libraries I attend to attract an audience that is 90% female. This may have a bit to do with the fact that I sense my recent books have appealed especially to a female readership. But I don’t think that is the main reason. The fact is that most whodunit writers who give talks find that most of those attending are women. I’m certainly happy about this, and I’m sure most if not all other writers are. But it does make you wonder why there is such a strong female presence.
Is it the case that mystery stories, perhaps especially those in the traditional style, appeal much more to women than to men? Or are men just very reluctant to attend talks about whodunits? And is there a connection with the fact that many key players in the publishing world are women? I’ve only ever had one literary agent, and she is female. Of the fiction editors I’ve had in the UK, five out of six have been female.
It’s all very intriguing, and definitely not a subject for complaint, but perhaps for curious enquiry. I’d be interested to know what readers of this blog think about the topic. Incidentally, the winner of the mystery event yesterday was – by a pleasant coincidence – a lady called Lisa whom I’ve never met before, but someone who has commented on this blog in the past. It was delightful to say hello to her, and a reminder of how connections can be made through the blogosphere that occasionally end up in meeting face to face.
Saturday, 12 June 2010
The latest book by R.S. Downie arrived on my doorstep recently, and is a reminder of the enduring popularity of books set in Roman times. The leader of the pack has for a good many years been Lindsey Davies, whose books about Falco have achieved a great deal of acclaim not only in Britain but throughout the world.
There are quite a number of others, however, who work in classical territory to very good effect. The American Steven Saylor is one, and closer to home we have Jane Finnis (whose new blog is a recent arrival on my blogroll.) And now we have Ruth Downie – it is, incidentally, an interesting question as to why some authors opt to be published under their initials rather than their first name; suffice to say that it has never done P.D. James any harm! There’s a suggestion on Ruth’s website that research shows that some male readers might be deterred from reading a book obviously written about a woman, which I think would have been extraordinary when P.D. was first published, let alone today.
Ruso and the Root of All Evils is the third novel about Gaius Petreus Ruso, whom the author describes neatly as a ‘Roman army medic and reluctant sleuth’. It follows Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (published in the US under the less evocative title Medicus) and Ruso and the Demented Doctor (Terra Incognita in the US).
The Ruso books have been well reviewed both here and overseas, and I’m pleased to have discovered them. In this story, our hero’s family falls under threat, but apart from the mystery, one of the merits of this series is the entertaining style of writing. The pattern is set right at the outset, when a witty summary of Ruso’s misadventures is provided, culminating in the news that he is ‘argued with, slept with, and abandoned (again)’ by the lovely Tilla. We are told early on that Tilla ‘had never fully subscribed’ to Ruso’s view that stealing is wrong', and the light and agreeable way that Ruth Downie has of capturing her characters is one of the key elements in the success of this likeable series.
Friday, 11 June 2010
I was sorry to learn – in the first instance, in an email from our mutual friend Margaret Yorke- that Clare Curzon had died, about three weeks ago. As a small tribute to her, therefore, my choice for today’s entry in Patti Abbot’s series of Forgotten Books is the first Clare Curzon novel I came across, Three-Core Lead.
This novel was first published in 1988, not long after I began reviewing crime fiction – a hobby which introduced me to many good writers. It features Detective Superintendent Mike Yeadings, of Thames Valley Serious Crime Squad. He had a passing acquaintance with a ‘spook’ called Howard Swaffham, whose obituary he reads. Swaffham died in Prague, and soon Yeadings receives a posthumous letter from him, which makes enigmatic reference to a ‘three-core lead’.
This is a solid mystery, of the type so often published under the imprint of the Collins Crime Club in the days when the late Elizabeth Walter was a distinguished editor there; she was a woman with a real love of the traditional-ish crime story, and published many reliable purveyors of whodunits, such as Anthea Fraser, Martin Russell and Clare Curzon, as well as higher-profile writers like Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard.
Some years after reading this book, I came to know Clare Curzon personally, as she regularly attended CWA conferences. She was a pleasant companion, and a highly professional writer, who produced a long series featuring Yeadings and was latterly published, like myself, by Allison & Busby (whose list features a number of former Collins Crime Club novelists.) Her real name was Eileen-Marie Duell-Buchanan (her late husband, who also attended CWA conferences regularly, was Jimmy Duell) and she also wrote as Rhona Petrie. She was 87 years old – but I gather that her latest book is due to appear in paperback in August, so clearly she was productive to the end. Three-Core Lead may not be a ground-breaking masterpiece, but it is a decent book, which should not be forgotten. And I am one of those who will remember Clare Curzon with affection.
Thursday, 10 June 2010
Cath Staincliffe has been a friend of mine since she joined the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, not long after her first Sal Kilkenny novel, published by a small Mancunian press, achieved a great deal of acclaim. Later, when our mutual friend Margaret Murphy formed Murder Squad, she invited Cath and I to join, along with Ann Cleeves, Chaz Brenchley, John Baker and Stuart Pawson. That was ten years ago, and Murder Squad is still going strong.
In the intervening years, Cath has enjoyed a great deal of success. She is best known for Blue Murder, starring Caroline Quentin. This began life as a novel for which she could not find a publisher. But she sold the concept to television, and it was quickly turned into a highly successful cop show that ran for several series.
In the meantime, she continued to write Sal Kilkenny novels, as well as turning out several Blue Murder books, and a stand-alone book called Trio. We’ve done a good many events together over the years and they are always god fun. It was great to catch up with her at Crimefest and, along with Ann, we had a meal together before joining up with the rest of The Monkey Coalition for the pub quiz.
Now, she has signed up with a new publisher to bring out her latest novel, The Kindest Thing. I’ve just received a copy and I’m looking forward to it very much. And Cath will be contributing a guest blog here in July around the time of publication of the paperback edition.
Wednesday, 9 June 2010
Panorama’s programme on the Cumbria Shootings on Monday evening was short, sharp and horrific. Sensibly, the makers scarcely attempted to answer the many questions surrounding Derrick Bird’s motives for killing twelve people, and then himself in a peaceful wood, but rather focused on following the geographical course he took, just one week ago.
The contrast between the sunlit landscape and the terrible crimes that Bird committed was shocking. Even Conan Doyle, when writing in 'The Copper Beeches' about 'the dreadful record of sin' to be found in the countryside could never have imagined a single man being responsible for such a trail of wanton, pointless destruction. Some of the stories told, albeit briefly, were heartbreaking. Bird started the day by shooting his twin brother, and later he killed – presumably at random – a woman whose twin sister described her own tragic loss. His victims included fellow taxi drivers, many if not all of them perhaps chosen as a result of some grudge, and passers-by who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The chief constable of Cumbria police, Craig Mackey, was grilled by the journalist, but denied that Bird could have been caught more quickly and before killing so many people. We don’t know all the facts, of course, but instinctively I have a great deal of sympathy for Mr Mackey’s points, which he put in a reasonable and by no means unduly defensive manner. There are questions to be asked about whether ambulances were allowed, quickly enough, to attend to the victims, but no doubt the answers will emerge in due course.
Strikingly, at the end of the programme, several people who were deeply affected by the shootings – including one man whom Bird shot in the face – expressed a degree of sympathy for the ‘normal bloke’ who snapped in such a terrible way, and with such appalling consequences. This is an extraordinary case which has made a deep impression on countless people, including me. A good deal has now emerged about the personal misfortunes which Bird suffered and which may help to explain, though not excuse, his conduct. But whether it will ever be fully explained remains far from clear.
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
The United States appears to be full of attorneys who dash off bulky legal thrillers at will. In the UK, by contrast, there are relatively few lawyers – solicitors or barristers – who combine full-time professional life with writing crime fiction. There have been some great exceptions to the rule, of course – Cyril Hare, Michael Gilbert and more recently Frances Fyfield spring to mind. But some lawyers who appeared destined to make a mark a decade or more ago, the likes of Dexter Dias and the duo who wrote as Rankin Davis (not Ian Rankin and Lindsey Davis, I hasten to add!) seem to have moved away from the genre.
But one newish name to note is that of Neil White. Neil is a Yorkshireman by birth, who now works with the Crown Prosecution Service in Lancashire. I met him again at Crimefest recently, although my happiest memory of being in his company has to be that memorable night when I won the CWA Dagger for best short story a couple of years back.
Neil started his writing career with a little known book, Salem, which I’m happy to have a copy of, but he then moved into the big time with a contract for a series of paperback original thrillers, featuring his regular characters Jack Garrett and DCI Laura McGarrity.
The latest, Dead Silent, is just out. It is published by Harper Collins and the premise is this: ‘Twenty years ago Claude Gilbert buried his wife alive and then killed himself – or so everyone believes. But as Gilbert disappeared on the night of the murder, the mystery has remained unsolved. Until now….”
Monday, 7 June 2010
A highlight of the week-end was a canal cruise with dinner on board, starting out from Bollington in Cheshire and organised by my friend from schooldays, Stephen, who is the dedicatee of The Cipher Garden. Among our fellow guests were Kate Ellis and her husband Roger.
The very agreeable trip reminded me of an article sent to me a while ago by that great crime buff, Philip L. Scowcroft. Philip contributes to many publications, including CADS and Deadly Pleasures, and this essay, ‘Canals and Waterways in British Crime Fiction’, which started life in an American canal history journal, is a very wide-ranging overview.
Philip identifies The Canal Mystery (1928) by John Remenham – an author unknown to me, I must confess – as the first British detective story with a canal setting; that is, if one discounts spy stories and books set around the navigable River Thames. He points out that the Grand Union Canal features in books by Margery Allingham and Harry Keating, while the Oxford Canal plays a part in two of Colin Dexter’s novels.
A good many other crime writers have used canal settings in their fictions. Examples that Philip gives include Andrew Garve, Marjorie Eccles, John Gano and Reginald Hill. And there’s a pleasing paradox about this, which struck me as we dined on Saturday evening. For to drift along an English canal in a comfortable narrow boat is one of the most peaceful experiences imaginable. It takes the imagination of a crime fan or writer to turn such tranquillity into something sinister!
Sunday, 6 June 2010
The latest episode of the Swedish TV version of Wallander that I’ve seen provided a very good example of balanced story-telling. By that, I mean that, in my opinion, the balance struck between the detective mystery plot and the addressing of social issues through the story was done with great skill, so that preachiness did not get in the way of the puzzle – yet the viewer was left with plenty to think about.
At the start of the screenplay, a girls’ choir is singing under the direction of a demanding woman teacher. A creepy-looking middle aged man comes in to listen. All the signs are that he is taking a close, and presumably unhealthy, interest in one or more of the teenage girls. When one of the girls, whose parents came from Iraq, is abducted, it is tempting to assume that the creepy chap is responsible. But the explanation for his behaviour, and the fate of the girl, proves to be more complicated.
The story-line touches on issues of racism and gender politics, and it would have been so easy for it to disintegrate into something worthy but tedious. But skilled writing, coupled with the excellent performances from the ensemble cast, ensures that interest never flags.
Not every episode of Wallander is as good as this one, I must admit. But I am certainly a fan, not only of Krister Henrikssen’s interpretation of the good-hearted cop, but also of the sharpness of the screenplays.
Saturday, 5 June 2010
After Derrick Bird's shooting spree in Cumbria on Wednesday, almost inevitably people are looking for someone or something to blame, given that the culprit is now beyond reach of earthly justice. For example, there is a suggestion that the Cumbria police would be more effective if they were part of a larger, merged force.
Now I'm not an expert on police force structures, but the issue of possible merger was a live one four or five years ago, and touched on in my early Lake District Mysteries. Suffice to say that, while merger may bring some advantages, there are also plenty of obvious disadvantages. Not least the risk of reducing locally-based policing, which (at least in my opinion) can contribute to keeping communities safe and cohesive. There might also be a tendency to focus on urban, rather than rural, policing. I do hope that the tragedies in Cumbria don't result in knee-jerk reactions.
On a lighter note, I've contributed a couple more columns to Bookdagger, one on the subject of Eurocrime, and the other taking crime fiction conventions as my topic. Here is a link to the site if you would like to read more: Bookdagger
Last Sunday I had the intriguing experience of discovering that a book of mine featured in The Sunday Times Bookwise quiz. I've had a go at that quiz hundreds of times over the years and I'm not sure I've ever got 100% correct answers, proving I don't know my literature quite as well as I ought to. But there were enough clues for me to identify that the answer to one of the questions was The Arsenic Labyrinth!
Friday, 4 June 2010
My choice for today’s Forgotten Book is a labour of love conceived by John Walsdorf as a tribute to Julian Symons, the crime novelist and critic whom he admired so much. I wrote about Walsdorf’s epic bibliography of Symons’ work a while ago, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was contacted via Facebook by John Walsdorf’s son, who promptly put me in touch with his father – who has proved a very interesting correspondent. Making these connections wouldn’t have been possible (or at least, not without great difficulty) a few years ago
John and Kathleen Symons, Julian’s widow, gathered tributes from a wide range of notable writers who knew and admired Julian. Julian Symons Remembered contains some great stories – for instance, I liked Susan Moody’s piece, recording that he hated to be described as a ‘doyen’. The respect in which the man was held shines through the pages.
Reg Hill says: ‘I wish I’d read Playing Happy Families before Julian died so that I could have added my voice to the many telling him how marvellous it was.’ A verdict on a fine book with which I fully agree. Michael Gilbert’s essay concludes: ‘He was, quite simply, a great man. Poet, historian, novelist, critic and Father of the British crime story. When shall we see his like again?’
High praise, but well merited. This is a splendid book, sadly little known and very hard to find, but it does not deserve to be forgotten, just as Julian Symons should never be forgotten by those who love the genre.
Thursday, 3 June 2010
Yesterday’s news of Derrick Bird’s killing spree in Cumbria is so appalling that it is difficult to take in. There is, no doubt, much yet to be revealed about the man who murdered at least a dozen people in such peaceful places as Whitehaven and Seascale, who shot many others, and who finally ended his own life – in the paradoxically lovely Lake District village of Boot. But this terrible tragedy is another reminder of the chasm between fictional crime, which entertains so many of us, and the real thing, which in this case has lasting and disastrous consequences for so many innocent people.
Well-written crime fiction can, I think, help us to understand the mind-set of murderers, and I honestly believe that is a valuable function. But I must admit that it is difficult at this point to comprehend why a man who apparently was a reasonably well liked taxi driver should suddenly embark on a mass killing spree. No doubt – like a good many people – he had a darker side, but the man had only just become a grandfather and does not seem, on the basis of early reports, to have had a significant criminal record. He has ruined so much, for so many – what on earth possessed him? One report suggests that there is a connection with a family dispute about a will (oddly enough, I was talking to a friend about the bitterness of some will disputes only a couple of days ago) but whether that helps to explain why Derrick Bird went berserk remains to be seen.
In one news report, the comment was made that ‘lessons will have to be learned’. It’s a typical response to a bad news story, but I tend to agree with Nigel Eastman, a professor of law in psychiatry writing in The Daily Telegraph, who says that cases like this are ‘unpredictable and unpreventable’. This may be dismissed by some as a counsel of despair, but (although I don’t claim to be an expert) it matches the conclusion I reached when I researched spree killings for my book Urge to Kill.
Spree killings in the UK are thankfully rare – off hand, I can only recall Hungerford in the 80s and Dunblane in the 90s. It may give comfort to some to think that passing new laws can put an end to crimes of this kind, but I’m not sure you can legislate for the Derrick Birds of this world.
I am very sad that Cumbria, a marvellous county that I grow fonder of with every visit, has witnessed so many tragedies in recent months. First, the fatal floods of winter, then the deaths of teenagers in a school coach trip crash, now this. In my books, I write about a fictionalised Cumbria Constabulary, deliberately distanced in various ways from the real organisation. But the men and women of Cumbria Police now have a truly dreadful task on their hands, dealing with the aftermath of this shocking sequence of events, and they and the people whose loved ones have died or been injured have my utmost sympathy.
Wednesday, 2 June 2010
CADS 58 has just been published and this marks 25 years of publication of a wonderful magazine. This milestone represents a triumph for editor Geoff Bradley, who has produced every single issue over a quarter of a century and established CADS as a truly unmissable publication for crime fans, especially for those fascinated by obscure and less well remembered books.
As usual, there are many, many good things in this issue (and also, I should declare, an article by me about Gory Knight, and a review of The Serpent Pool). I shall write on another occasion about Liz Gilbey’s informative article about Helen Simpson. An old article by George Bellairs about Sherlock Holmes and the Bankers has been unearthed, Nick Kimber writes about Hilda Lawrence (a writer whose Death of a Doll I much enjoyed) and other notable contributions come from Philp Scowcroft, Mike Ripley, Christine R. Simpson, Bob Adey and Marv Lachman.
Really, though, it verges on the invidious to single out particular items, because the contributors are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The letters column of CADS is always interesting, and so is The Questionnaire, in which Bob Cornwell puts questions to a leading writer – this time, Frances Fyfield.
Producing CADS is a labour of love. A great deal of hard work must be involved, but I can only hope that Geoff will keep the magazine going for many years to come. CADS is indispensable for the crime buff and I recommend it unreservedly to readers of this blog.
Tuesday, 1 June 2010
I’ve mentioned Stephen Booth’s Lost River in the context of the amount of background information that the book contains, but there is much more to it than that. This is the tenth book in the Cooper and Fry series (although oddly, the press release says it’s the ninth – the correct figure appears on the dust wrapper) and one of the reasons I plucked it out of the voluminous pile of splendid books that I really ought to read was the evocative title, which really is made relevant to the story, in a neat and highly satisfactory manner that remains unclear until a late stage.
The opening chapter is gripping, with Ben Cooper involved in a tragic incident, when he fails to save a young girl from drowning. He becomes intrigued by her family, the Nields, and it is quickly apparent that all is not right in the Nield household. Ben is an appealing character, and the only false note is when he says to the grieving mother, ‘Be thankful that you still have your oldest child.’ This comment is relevant to the plot, but I didn’t think Ben - who is a nice guy - would say something so insensitive.
This is a good example of the way in which contemporary writers work with the conventions of traditional British crime fiction, whilst updating them. The story of the Nields alternates with Diane Fry’s journey back into her own past, a journey that takes her back to Birmingham. The first half of the book moves at a rather sedate pace, but the momentum gathers in the second half, and Diane’s quest eventually ends with her making not one but two quite shocking discoveries. To some extent, Diane’s story takes centre stage in the later part of the book, which I hadn’t expected, and it’s a good example of how a talented crime writer will confound reader expectations.
And Stephen Booth certainly is a talented writer. One of my fondest memories is of the Harrogate Festival four years ago, when I was short-listed for the Theakston’s prize for the best crime novel of the year (for The Coffin Trail.) And sitting alongside me were not only Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, but also Stephen Booth. Neither Stephen nor I won, but it was a great evening all the same, and one that lives on vividly in my memory.