Friday, 30 August 2013

Forgotten Book - I Am Jonathan Scrivener

The book I'm going to talk about today is one I'd never heard of (nor had I heard of its author) until I read a post on that excellent blog, Pretty Sinister Books, where John Norris praised it highly. John managed to get me really intrigued, and since a newish reprint is readily available, I sought it out. The Forgotten Book is I Am Jonathan Scrivener, and its Forgotten Author is Claude Houghton.

Back in the Thirties, both the novel and its creator gathered an impressive list of admirers. These included such diverse figures as Henry Miller, Hugh Walpole, Clemence Dane and P.G Wodehouse. Walpole and Dane even published a short appreciation of Houghton's work. In the present day, Houghton's fans include Michael Dirda, who contributes an enthusiastic intro to the new edition of the book (there is also a short piece by Walpole.)

It's a distinctive story, not quite like anything else I've ever read. There certainly seems to me to be an influence from Franz Kafka, but then again, the style is not really like Kafka. It's a genuine one-off. The story is narrated by James Wrexham, and he applies for a job as a secretary to a man of independent means who is about to leave the country. He gets the job, and is told by a solicitor that his new employer is called Jonathan Scrivener, and that he can live in Scrivener's house and, in effect, do as he pleases.

Various acquaintances of Scrivener turn up at the house, and they all seem keen to see Scrivener again, but equally, there is an air of mystery about the man. In particular, he seems to have made different impressions on each of them. What is Scrivener up to? I found this a fascinating, and often witty book, which held my interest despite a distinct lack of action. It's a book full of ideas, but none the worse for that. I enjoyed reading it, and although I don't claim it as a major masterpiece, it's astonishing that it's slipped so far from view until recently.  And also, from a writer's point of view, sobering.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Jack Reacher - movie review

Jack Reacher is the film version of Lee Child's best-seller One Shot. There's been a lot of debate about whether Tom Cruise is appropriately cast as the much taller Reacher, but for me, this is not a key issue. What really matters is whether Cruise captures the essence of the character. I'd say that he's not perfect, but pretty good, and certainly good enough. And the decision to cast Robert Duvall and the menacing Werner Herzog in smaller but important roles was quite inspired - and I bet it was a real thrill for Lee Child to see these two appearing in the first film of his work.

The story begins with a sniper firing six times and killing five people. The overwhelmingly likely suspect is rounded up and soon reduced to a coma. His lawyer, Rosamund Pike (whose professional dress code is rather different from that of all the other female lawyers I know) is thrown into conflict with the D.A., who just happens to be her dad. The suspect, for mysterious reasons, scrawls a message, "Get Jack Reacher". And as if by magic, Reacher appears.

I was baffled by the scene in which Pike questions Cruise and tells him that the conversation is legally privileged. Given that he is not her client, this can only be right if American law is significantly different from English law. Well, I can only presume that it is, but this did jar with me. On the whole, however, the film sprints along in the style we associate with Bond and Bourne, and it makes for good light entertainment.

Lee Child takes the craft of the thriller seriously, which helps to explain his massive success. I've read and enjoyed a number of Lee Child books, but not One Shot. One of the others borrowed a famous plot device from Agatha Christie, and the same trick is pulled here. The excellent director, Christopher McQuarrie, does not go into much detail about the motive for the crime, and we don't have much backstory about Herzog's character. This is a real pity - I suppose McQuarrie felt these elements needed to be cut to maintain pace. So overall, not a masterpiece, but good fun. And despite the casting of Cruise, I'm sure the film will make even more people want to read Lee Child's bestsellers. They will, I think, find them even more entertaining than this lively and action-packed movie.

Monday, 26 August 2013

What Remains - BBC TV review: episode one

What Remains started last night, and episode one was very watchable for (at least) three reasons. First, the script by Tony Basgallop explores the lonely bleakness of one aspect of London society, where a person can die and not be missed for a very long time. Apparently, a tragic real life case formed part of the inspiration for the story. In What Remains, the mummified remains of a woman called Melissa are discovered in the loft of the house where she lived. Nobody had seen her for ages, and everyone says they thought she had  moved out.

Second, the victim lived in a house divided into several flats,and a number of people living there are potential suspects. They include a dodgy teacher (well played by David Bamber) and two women whose relationship is falling apart. Really, the house offers a "closed community" familiar from many traditional whodunits,but the feel of this show is bleak and far from traditional.

A long time ago, I made regular visits to a shared house in London over the course of two or three years. The occupants rented their rooms, rather than owning separate flats,but What Remains did remind me strongly of that house and the eclectic community formed by its residents. I was very conscious at the time that the people who lived there were linked by nothing other than an address, and that tensions could rise between near-strangers just as they can rise between family members. I even thought that one day I might write a story with such a background....

The third strength of episode one was the performance of David Threlfall as Len, the cop who is about to retire when he is called out to look into Melissa's death. He too is lonely and clearly loneliness is going to be the key theme of this story, and may even be relevant to the motive for murder - assuming that Melissa was murdered, as I do, of course. I really enjoyed the understated way Threlfall tackled the part of Len, a man with whom one can readily empathise. I'll definitely be watching this one next week.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Forgotten Book - Top Storey Murder

Life's too short to read all the books that one would like to try. And it's certainly too short to re-read books that are somewhat disappointing. But my Forgotten Book for today is a title which I felt was a bit of a let down originally, but which I liked rather better the second time around. Perhaps that it is because the author was Anthony Berkeley, who confounded my expectations originally, but whose contradictory way with story-telling I've come to value highly.

The book in question is Top Storey Murder. It was written at around the same time as Berkeley produced his masterpiece, Malice Aforethought, under the name of Francis Iles,but it's a very different book .As often, the detective is Roger Sheringham, the most engagingly fallible of all "great" detectives of the Golden Age. Roger is outsmarted by Moresby of the Yard nearly as often as he triumphs over him. And this book is a case in point.

Sheringham, cheeky as ever, involves himself in Moresby's investigation into the murder of Mrs Barnett, someone who (like so many victims in Berkeley's books) dies unmourned. Her niece Stella is one of the suspects, and Roger finds himself attracted to her, while wondering if she is a killer. A range of other people who live in Monmouth Mansions, where the dead woman was found, also come under suspicion.

This novel is a good example of the way Berkeley liked to play games with the detective story. Not just the game of "whodunit", but tricks with plot and perpectives on the nature of justice. When I first read Top Storey Murder, I felt that the ending was a bit of a cheat, and I'm still sure that the nature of the resolution of the mystery is a key reason why this book is not one of Berkeley's best. But it's more interesting than I gave it credit for, the first time I read it. Berkeley set out to be different, and this is one more story when he succeeded in his aim.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Southcliffe: episode 4 - TV review

Southcliffe finished on Sunday night, but I only caught up with episode four 48 hours later. Having loved the series at the outset what did I make of it, having now watched the whole drama? The series has, I think it's fair to say, rather divided opinion. Some absolutely love it. Some hate it. Others think it began well but then fell apart.

Well, the first point I'd make is that a series that can provoke such a range of reactions must have something to be said for it. Midsomer Murders it ain't. This is a story about a spree killer, and the consequences of his actions for a tight-knit community. And I'm still full of admiration for Tony Grisoni's writing, and in particular the actors (especially Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson), though I did think that some parts of the story (Shirley Henderson's increasingly frenzied attempts to deal with the death of her daughter, above all) were developed at the expense of others which intrigued and tantalised..

There is a bleak and depressing mood throughout the four episodes, and anyone looking for comfortable entertainment should look elsewhere, but for me, Grisoni did very well to come up with an ending that felt broadly positive, despite the absence of clear or easy answers to the issue of spree killing and its complicated motivations. The structure of the storyline was unorthodox, but extremely interesting from a technical point of view, and I felt that even though the story seemed to meander at times, the refusal to settle for obvious sub-plots was a real strength.

There's certainly much more that can be said about spree killers, and I'm not sure that the finale contributed to our understanding of what makes them act the way they do. But Southclife was an original piece of work that kept me interested and thinking hard, even when I might have preferred to look away. I don't suggest it was perfect, but I'm very glad I watched it.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Meg Elizabeth Atkins R.I.P.

After returning home from St Hilda's, and the happy experience of meeting a good many old friends, it was very sad to learn of the loss of someone I've known since the start of my career as a crime writer. This was Meg Elizabeth Atkins, who died at home on Saturday after a long illness borne with great courage.

Meg and her husband Percy attended the inaugural meeting of the Northern Chapter of the CWA where, more than 25 years ago, I had my first introduction to the sociable world of crime writing. Meg and Percy were, from that day on, stalwarts of the Northern Chapter, and they organised numerous events for us all to enjoy over the years.

The photo of Meg and Percy that accompanies this post was taken at the 20th anniversary Northern Chapter lunch. Naturally I was delighted to see them when we celebrated our 25th anniversary at Pickering last autumn, but by then it was clear that Meg was quite poorly. Even so, she and Percy came along to the CWA's annual conference this spring at Windermere, the last time I saw her. Suffice to say that throughout all the time I knew her, Meg displayed a sparkling sense of humour and vivacious personality which were not noticeably dimmed when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A very brave person.

And also a good writer, although far from prolific. Her books appeared infrequently and at irregular intervals.and I think this is why her work is not as often discussed as it might otherwise have been. Her first novel appeared almost fifty years ago, but had less than a dozen successors in the intervening years, perhaps the best known being Palimpsest and Cruel as the Grave.

I shall miss her.

Monday, 19 August 2013

St Hilda's Crime and Mystery Week-end

St Hilda's Crime and Mystery Week-end is a crime conference with a distinctive and delightful personality which makes it very different from other crime-related events. The setting is St Hilda's College, Oxford, and I'm just back from the twentieth conference, which was, if anything, even more enjoyable than usual. The fact that this week-end is not advertised, has no promotional website, and yet has flourished for two decades, speaks for itself. When people do find out about it, and attend, they tend to love it, and go back year after year. There's no clearer sign of success than that.

The theme this year was "The Present and Future of Crime Fiction" and when I was asked to deliver a paper, I thought I would be very crafty and find a neat way to weave a talk about the Golden Age into the over-arching theme. What I hadn't anticipated was that some other writers would have the same idea - and my talk was on Saturday afternoon, while just before lunch P.D. James herself would be speaking about....the Golden Age.

P.D. James was aptly described by Natasha Cooper, the chair of the conference, as the true Queen of Crime and it was wonderful to see that her audience regarded it as a true privilege to be able to listen to her. And so it was. Fortunately for me, there was no overlap between her topics of mine, and one of the more daunting experiences of my public speaking career (yet a real honour) was to see Baroness James herself sitting in the front row to listen to my paper. I did feel a bit nervous, having foolishly said the previous evening that I feel more confident about speaking in public nowadays than I used to, but I managed to get through to the end without drying up completely. The papers are delivered in pairs, so P.D. James spoke along with Frances Fyfield, while I was paired with Peter Robinson - and it was very good to catch up with him again over the week-end.

The other speakers included Andrew Taylor (talking about C.S. Forester), and Val McDermid, while two after dinner speeches were given by Bernard Knight on the Friday, and Cilla Masters on the Saturday. There was also an extremely interesting panel chaired by Ayo Onatade on the future of crime publishing. The attendees included quite a number of notable writers who weren't actually speaking - a few examples include Frances Brody, Ann Granger, Marjorie Eccles, Kate Ellis, and AK Benedict - while I met several writers whose first books are due to appear shortly. As ever with these events, the combination of catching up with old friends and meeting new people was very pleasurable.

Much of the success of St Hilda's is down to continuity and the sterling efforts of the organisers, Kate Charles and Eileen Roberts, and Natasha Cooper, who chairs quite brilliantly in a calm, efficient and extremely generous style that few if any could match. This trio put a huge amount of work into the event, and their reward is simply that they give a lot of people a great time.If you've never attended St Hilda's, I do recommend it very strongly. The dates for next year are 15-17 August 2014.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Forgotten Book - Keep It Quiet

Richard Hull, who has featured in my series of Forgotten Books a number of times already, is again the man responsible for today's choice. Keep It Quiet, published in 1935, was a prompt follow-up to his highly successful debut, The Murder of My Aunt. Again, the story-line is unusual, although it's fair to say that, as with so many writers who make a brilliant start, he did not find the second book as straightforward.

Keep It Quiet is set in a gentleman's club in London, and Hull was writing about what he knew, since apparently he was not only a member of such a club, but actually lived there at one time. Biographical details about Hull are fairly scant, mostly confined to bios on the back of a few Penguin editions of his work. I'd be interested to know more about him. He certainly had a sharp sense of humour. The setting gives him plenty of chances to amuse himself and his readers about clubland life. There's quite a funny joke about his own weight, smuggled in to chapter 29, which only makes sense if you know that Hull's real name was Richard Henry Sampson.

A club member appears to have been poisoned by the club cook, and the hapless club secretary decides to embark on a cover-up, with the assistance of a member who happens to be a doctor.This unwise course of action has far-reaching repercussions, and soon it seems that the lives of other members are under threat. The identity of the bad guy (there are no female characters of any significance) is clear from a relatively early stage, and the main question is how the situation will be sorted out, and whether anyone else will die before the end.

There's a neat variation on a familiar solution which introduces the laws of Latvia (of all things) and there's a general quirkiness about the book that works fairly well. The downside, as often with Hull, is that his amusing central idea needed to be stretched out somewhat to result in a full-length novel. Writers like Agatha Christie, who made sure there were plenty of suspects to be studied, structured their books better. But Hull was an engaging writer, and I suspect he was also an engaging companion in real life.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Do Not Cross by Paul Clarke - review

By a series of strange coincidences, this year I've had a number of reminders of the past which I've found these both unexpected and welcome. A library talk in Winsford, for instance, led to my hearing from a contemporary who grew up with many of my friends. An interview that Leigh Russell conducted with me for Mystery People led to my hearing from someone with whom I was at university, but later lost touch. Very enjoyable discussions and catching-up have ensued.

And a few days ago, I received a mysterious parcel from France. It turned out to contain a nicely produced paperback book, a novel called Do Not Cross by Paul Clarke. Paul was a partner in my firm for a good many years, and definitely one of the good guys (not absolutely everyone else qualified for that description, but that's another story!) I used to enjoy chatting to Paul, and he was kind enough to read and comment on a couple of my early Harry Devlin books.

However, a decade or so ago, Paul decided to turn his back on the law, and emigrate to France with his teacher wife Sue. I was sorry to see him go, although I could easily see the attraction of giving up work for a more relaxing way of life. I suppose that in those days, I was personally very driven, not least for financial reasons, and although I dreamed of giving up work to write, I never got close to it. But I'm edging a bit closer now, and the example set by people like Paul is definitely encouraging.

Paul was kind enough to say that our conversations all those years ago had encouraged him to start writing himself, and I'm really delighted about this. So what of Do Not Cross? Well, it's an enjoyable light thriller, set in Liverpool, and the wry tone is set in the very first line: "He was born unlucky; his father died during childbirth."Paul's model is Donald E. Westlake, and Liverpool night life collides with Bin Laden-style terrorism in a lively read. Paul has published his novel both as an ebook and in print, and I hope that reader response encourages him to keep writing. In the meantime, I'm very glad to have read his story, and to have my own signed copy.

An evening to remember

I've mentioned Gladstone's Library, in North Wales, a number of times on this blog, and regular readers will recall that I'm a huge fan of this unique and marvellously atmospheric place, which attracts book lovers and scholars from all over the world - and they can even stay on the premises (in rooms that are extremely pleasant, I may add.)

Yesterday evening saw the official, if slightly belated, UK launch of The Frozen Shroud, and I was especially lucky - not only that the Library hosted the event, as it has done for my last two Lakes books, but also that we were able to hold it in the stunning setting of the library itself. Normally, the library is still being used by researchers and residents in the evening, but because the Gladstone Room, where talks are usually held, is being refurbished, I was given special dispensation to make use of the library itself.

After a reading, a talk about researching the book, and questions, there was a chance to mingle with the audience, always very enjoyable. And a great (and, given the nature of visitors to the library) diverse and international audience it was too - also including Sarah Ward, well known to many of you for her excellent blog Crime Pieces. Sarah has returned to this part of the world after a number of years in Greece and it was good to see her again after our famous 'near miss' in the Harrogate quiz a few weeks ago!

I've been really pleased by reaction to the book so far, with wonderful reviews from The Literary Review and elsewhere. Very good for morale as I set about tackling the next Lake District Mystery.

And I'm delighted to say that I have two further events scheduled at Gladstone's Library in the near future. First, a Victorian murder mystery evening staged as part of their first literary festival, Gladfest (others appearing include Stella Duffy, formerly a writer in residence at the Library) and then I'll be giving my first ever after dinner speech - at the annual conference of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London's annual gathering. Looking forward to both occasions...

Monday, 12 August 2013

Town on Trial - film review

I'm rather surprised to find that I don't seem to have mentioned Town on Trial, one of my favourite Fifties British crime films on this blog before. I first saw, and liked, the movie when I was quite young and I've enjoyed it a number of times since. One new thought occurred to me on the latest viewing the other day was that, in essentials, it is rather like a forerunner of Broadchurch. A tough, troubled cop comes to a small town to investigate a murder, and finds several skeletons in the closets of the locals, who close ranks against him.

Suffice to say that I enjoyed Town on Trial just as much as I enjoyed Broadchurch, although of course the latter benefits from the cliffhangers of a serial, and high quality production values. Taking the role in the film equivalent to David Tennant's in the TV show is John Mills, master of the stiff upper lip, as a cop who fancies the American niece of one of the suspects, a local doctor.

A girl is strangled and Mills soon makes himself unpopular, antagonsing the local Casanova and doyen of the tennis club as well as a number of other worthies. One of them, the repressive father of a pretty young girl who was friendly with the deceased, is played by Geoffrey Keen, who specialised in gruff hard man roles in film and TV for many years. I remember him best from The Troubleshooters, which is going back a very long time. But he also featured in six James Bond films.

The decisive clue to the killer's identity is one that has always stuck in my mind. I don't know a great deal about the screenplay writers, Ken Hughes and Robert Westerby, but the script is smoothly professional and they both did plenty of film work. Mills is as good as usual, but it's sad that Barbara Bates, his love interest, was evidently a troubled woman who later committed suicide. Elizabeth Seal, the young woman desperate to escape the nest, soon gave up acting, which was a pity, but other cast members including Raymond Huntley and Dandy Nicholls enjoyed successful careers. All in all, an entertaining, well-made film -and recognising that similarity to Broadchurch reminds me how fascinated we are by crime in "closed" communities.

Researching a Novel - and Ravenglass

Researching the background of a novel can be hard work on occasion, but it can also be highly pleasurable. I decided recently that I needed to have a re-think about the setting of the new Lake District Mystery, and use a background that I haven't featured before. There were several possibilities, and I decided that I'd start by scouting out the area around Ravenglass on the west coast of Cumbria.

So on Friday, that's exactly what I did. Ravenglass is quite a distance from Cheshire, and I didn't have much time to spare, so it was a whistle-stop tour of an area I've visited briefly in the past. But it was really rewarding, and I'm now pretty settled in thinking that the new story will be based around the west coast. It's a fascinating part of the world, where small coastal resorts lie almost next door to the massive nuclear reactor at Sellafield.

Ravenglass, with its atmospheric estuarine setting, has a narrow gauge railway, on which I travelled on some years ago, and also some Roman remains - the walls of an ancient bath house are tucked away in the trees. I wandered around, trying to figure out how some of the scenes I envisage including in my book could fit into such an area.

Of course, the power of the novelist lies in the ability to make changes to topography. I do this quite a lot, for a number of reasons. First,it helps sometimes to make the story work. Second - and this is often more important - it helps to reinforce the message that I'm writing fiction, not thinly disguised fact. You  can take realism too far, and I certainly don't want people living or working in the Lakes to think I am writing about them, their houses or their businesses.

So having researched a location, I invent places to fit into the neighbourhood where the main action of my stories take place. Does this mean the research is a waste of time? Not a bit of it. I now have a better feeling for the coastal areas I visited - including the sand dunes of Drigg - and even if I need to make a few changes before a version of them appears in the novel, the time spent on soakiing up the atmosphere will have been worthwhile. I hope so, anyway...

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Sebastian Bergman - BBC Four TV review

I watched The Cursed One, the first episode of Sebastian Bergman last night, having missed its original airing last year. This was the second new (to me) series that I've looked at this week, having taken in the first of a two-parter basead on Denise Mina's work, The Field of Blood, a couple of days before. There's a view in some quarters that the quality of British crime shows on TV doesn't compare with that of those from Europe at the moment. I don't agree, but although The Field of Blood certainly has its merits, of the two shows, I found (slightly to my surprise, to be honest) that I was more struck by Sebastian Bergman.

A good deal of this has to do with the terrific performance of Rolf Lassgard as the eponymous crime profiler. At first, Bergman comes across as a deeply troubled and unattractive individual, but the more one learns about him, the more one see the depth in the portrayal. As well as the quality of the acting, the quality of the writing, by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt, is responsible for this. I was impressed.

The opening is striking - a young man, apparently injured, is walking across a football pitch when a sniper shoots him. The victim, it turns out, was leading quite a complicated life, and unravelling it depends not just on some good detective work, but also Bergman's profiling skills. All in all, I thought the plot was handled very well - its trickiness and use of false solutions was reminiscent of Inspector Morse, even if the mood was very different.

Whilst I'm afraid I always find sub-titles a deterrent, I found the story interesting, edgy and twisty enough to keep me gripped from start to finish. Once the culprit was identified, there was still time for a further turn of the screw, as Bergman solved a mystery from his past life. This struck me as genuinely poignant. A very good episode, and I'm glad I have caught up with it at last.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Forgotten Book - Found Floating

It's a standing joke with crime writers that a visit to an exotic location should be followed by a book in the same setting, so that the trip can legitimately be treated as tax-deductible. It's also fair to say that writers who travel far and wide often feel inspired to transform their wanderings into fiction. A Mediterranean cruise features in my Forgotten Book for today, and I'm sure that the author, Freeman Wills Crofts, must have been on just such a cruise not long before he wrote the story.

One snag was that his trip, which included a stop in Cadiz, took place before the Spanish Civil War, and by the time Found Floating came out, he needed to explain in a prefatory note that the cruise undertaken by William Carrington and his family also pre-dated the conflict. But you can bet that Crofts enjoyed his cruise. He devotes a whole chapter to an account of the cruise ship! Even allowing for the fact that he did introduce some plot material as well, this "Interlude" as he describes it was a bit much, I felt. On the whole, the story is more about travel than the fairly ingenious murder plan at its heart.

William Carrington is a wealthy businessman, but there is a rift in the family about who should take over. His appointed successor, Mant Carrington, has recently come back to Britain from Australia, and he is not universally popular. He is the main target of an attempted poisoning, and the cruise is intended to aid the recovery of those who were affected, but Mant is not destined to return alive. Inspector French is given the chance to join the ship, and very pleased he is about it too.

The killer's scheme is quite complicated, but I must admit that French's unravelling of it did not keep me gripped. Part of the problem was the very small pool of potential suspects, and the fact that I didn't really care about them. Nor did I think that the killer's motivation was adequately signposted. Crofts wasn't very interested in criminal psychology, and this makes Found Floating a flawed book. He did much better in some of his other novels, but at least I'm sure he had a great time in the Med,!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Dead Woman Walking by Jessica Mann: review

Jessica Mann is a thoughtful and thought-provoking writer whose primary reputation is as a crime novelist. Amongst other things, she's written a study of the "Crime Queens" of the Golden Age, Deadlier than the Male. She's also written outside the genre, and her latest novel, Dead Woman Walking is a reminder of the breadth of her interests.

It's also a peculiarly fascinating book because she's done something unusual and appealing. Just as Agatha Christie, having started her career with A Mysterious Affair at Styles, took Poirot and Hastings back to Styles Court in her excellent and under-estimated novel Curtain, so here Jessica Mann has delved back into her own literary past.

As she explains in a note at the end of the book, the woman who narrates part of the story, Isabel, appearead in her very first novel, A Charitable End. Another major character, the memorably evoked Fidelis Berlin, appeared in an excellent mystery, A Private Inquiry, as well as in two subsequent books which I haven't read as yet. And Jessica is kind enough to say in the note that a suggestion from me inspired her to write a "sort of sequel" to her debut novel, forty years on. Very gratifying from my perspective (especially as she is a writer whose books I enjoyed long before I ever met her), and suffice to say that she's done something unusual and distinctive with that initial idea. The result is a book to savour.

This is a relatively short novel (published by The Cornovia Press, based in Yorkshire) and there are plenty of switches of scenes, as well as (mainly in the early part of the book) switches of period. So we begin with a preamble set in Nazi Germany, move forward to Scotland in 1964, then go to the present day, and so on. The catalyst for the story is the discovery of the body of a woman who disappeared half a century ago, but there is also a dramatic mix of ingredients, ranging from Fidelis' quest for the truth about her own identity to an ingenious method of murder, the abduction of children, and Satanic rituals.

There is a very striking climax, but this is also a novel of ideas, about feminism, family and literature. In addition, I suspect that there may be a number of semi-autobiographical elements. As you would expect with Jessica Mann, it's a very well-written as well as a poignant book. I'm delighted to have read it, and to be able to confirm that after a slight delay in publication date, it's now available generally..

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Southcliffe - Channel 4 TV review

Southcliffe, a four part crime series, has just begun on Channel 4 and I made a spur of the moment decision to watch the first episode. I didn't know much about Southcliffe in advance, but the title did make me wonder if it might be a poor man's version of Broadchurch. Far from the truth, as things turned out. Even though the story is set in on the south coast of England, like Broadchurch, the mood and setting are very different.

We know from the first scene that a spree killer is at work. Shades of Michael Ryan in Hungerford and Derrick Bird in Cumbria, as well as all too many other deranged and dangerous people in various parts of the world. But then, in effect, we get a flashback and the rest of the episode shows the build-up to the terrifying events.

A soldier, played by Joe Dempsie, returns to Southcliffe, but it's far from clear that it's a town fit for heroes. One of the locals, known as 'The Commander' (Sean Harris) tries to befriend him, but it is clear from the start that the Commander is a deeply troubled soul. His home life is bleak, his personality disturbing, and his tendency to fantasise about a supposed past in the SAS a very bad sign indeed.

Written by Tony Grisoni, episode one made for raw and, I felt, compelling viewing. I've watched the first episodes of two highly acclaimed imported series, The Returned and Top of the Lake, in recent weeks, but Southcliffe made a greater impact on me than either of those other (no doubt more expensively produced) shows, for all their strengths.

The closing moments were very dark, and I'm expecting more of the same in episode two. But I'll certainly be watching. Comfort viewing it isn't, especially if you work in the tourist office at Faversham in Kent, which provides an intriguing but - so far - cheerless backdrop for the unfolding events. But Southcliffe has got off to an impressive start..

Friday, 2 August 2013

Forgotten Book - Vantage Striker

My Forgotten Book for today dates back to 1931, and was written by an Australian who made her home in England. Helen Simpson, an early member of the Detection Club, was a close friend of Dorothy L. Sayers, although her books were very different. Two of them were made into films by Alfred Hitchcock, an indication of her significance. Yet perhaps because she died young, at the age of 42, she is seldom mentioned in discussions about the Golden Age.

Vantage Striker is an odd title, which may have contributed to its neglect. In the US, it was called The Prime Minister is Dead, which at least gives some idea of the story. It's a strange and very unusual book, with a number of interesting elements, though the story meanders, and it's a very long way indeed from the tightly written stories which Agatha Christie was producing at the same time. I mentioned the book to a crime writing friend, who then not only found a copy but kindly loaned it to me, a generous gesture with a novel so scarce.

The story opens with a boxing match, and a game of tennis plays a part in the story. There's a love affair and quite a bit of politics, and also a plot dependent on medical knowledge. Simpson's husband was a prominent medic, and it's safe to assume that he contributed the necessary technical expertise.I find it difficult to say much more about the story without ruining it. Suffice to say that it's not really about whodunit, but more about how a tricky dilemma can be worked out.

So how do I rate it? That's also hard to answer, because although it's a quick read, I found it dated and included quite a bit of padding. The story itself was thin. But the ideas behind it are genuinely interesting, and Simpson's unorthodox approach results into a novel about crime, rather than a detective novel, that is far removed from the stereotypical Golden Age mystery. A historical curiosity of genuine interest is how I'd sum it up. But it's rare,at least in the original print edition. A good example, perhaps, of a book that will benefit from digital publishing.