Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Escape Artist - BBC 1 TV review

The Escape Artist, which began on BBC 1 tonight, was always likely to appeal to me. A three-part thriller with a barrister as the main character, and David Tennant (fresh from the excellent Broadchurch) cast in the lead role, what could possibly go wrong? What is more, the script is by the highly regarded David Wolstencroft. So I sat down to watch with high expectations.

Of course, the TV legal thriller is fraught with pitfalls. Most lawyers, I think it's fair to say, are deeply unconvinced by the majority of lawyers who appear on the screen - I suppose police officers know that feeling all too well. It's not easy to strike a balance between credibility and good entertainment. Years ago, I recall a series about an employment lawyer which rejoiced in the name Fish. The verdict in the Liverpool employment tribunal the following day was damning, I'm afraid.

On the whole, the better shows have tended to showcase barristers rather than solicitors - I'm sure this is because of the lure of courtroom drama rather than because solicitors are less interesting people! (And Kinsey and The Main Chance were among the notable exceptions to the general rule.) At one time, I thought the two legal professions would one day merge - quite a widely held view - but now I'm less sure. The criminal Bar is suffering because of cuts in legal aid, yet many solicitors' firms have run into difficulty too. But a show dealing with the realities of legal life at a time of economic difficulty would hardly be a ratings winner, and here, as usual on telly, the lawyers (including Roy Marsden, playing a veteran solicitor in his customary suave manner) are all rich and mostly on the top of their game.

Tennant plays Will Burton, a lawyer so good at getting his clients off that he is known as the Escape Artist. He is a good husband and father (except for his horrible habit of shouting from the touchline when his son plays football) and he never loses a case, which must make him unique. When an apparent sociopath (spookily played by the excellent Toby Kebbel) hires hiim when he needs a good defence to a charge of a very gruesome murder, Will wins again, after one or two rather improbable moments in court. But Will and his client haven't bonded, and Bad Things start to happen.

This was a very striking start to the story, and I was gripped from start to finish. Tennant is a great actor, but the supporting cast was also very, very good. Episode two is a must-watch for me.

Norman Geras

Norman Geras,who died a few days ago, was the husband of Adele Geras, with whom I spent a memorable week-end at the Kidwelly ebook festival last year, and the father of Sophie Hannah, a crime writer of distinction who has recently been appointed to write a brand new Poirot story. I'm optimistic that she'll make a very good job of it.

Adele and Sophie are charming, but Norman himself, I am sorry to say, I never met. It's clear from the many warm tributes that have been paid to him that he was a man of real distinction, and I'm sure that I would have enjoyed his company, had I been fortunate enough to share it.

Anyway, a few years ago, Norman got in touch with me via email and said that he'd picked up on the fact that I'm a great admirer of Julian Symons. I gather he was, too. So he asked me to write something for his blog about Symons, and I was glad to do so here.

I'm extremely sorry that he won't be around to see the publication of Sophie's take on Poirot. But I'm glad that he knew all about it, and I bet he was very proud indeed. Rightly so.

Monday, 28 October 2013

P.D. James and true crime wriitng - a few more thoughts

P.D. James' reassessment of the Wallace case, which I posted about yesterday, is one of the most exciting pieces of "true crime" writing I've read for a long time. And so I thought I'd make a few more points, again in the hope of stimulating debate among those who find the Wallace mystery as intriguing as I do.

For a start, I'm really pleased that this admirable writer, whose The Maul and The Pear-Tree (co-written with T.A. Critchley) is a very good book about a nineteenth century case, has turned again to a historical puzzle.There is a long and rather splendid tradition of crime novelists taking an interest in real life cases and I'm pleased to see from this essay that the Queen of Crime is on top form. Not that, after her very enjoyable paper about the Golden Age at St Hilda's a couple of months back, I had any doubt about that.

I would like to think that this stylish and ingenious essay will kick-start a revival of interest in classic murder cases. They were in vogue again about 20 years ago, but with a few notable exceptions (above all, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher) the trend in "true crime" writing has seemed to be rather downmarket, with a number of lurid books about gangsters and the Mafia that prioritised sensation rather than quality.

As regards Wallace, I'm still mulling over P.D. James' arguments, but on the whole I side with the  "Wallace was innocent" campaign. I don't attach much importance, for instance, to the fact that the presumed killer's ex-girlfriend said late in life that she didn't believe he was a murderer. There could be various reasons why she said that. Most important, though, is Wallace's psychological profile. Does it suggest a murderer? (Or someone who would dress up as his wife in order to create confusion about the time of death?) Well, we are all capable of unexpected behaviour, but I don't see him as a man who could commit such a crime and then maintain a resolute protestation of innocence until he died. He might have been an insurance salesman (and a former political agent) but I don't know of any evidence suggesting he was capable of sustained dishonesty, let alone violence. The alternative suspect, Parry, on the other hand, had a criminal record, albeit for comparatively minor offences.

One thing is for sure. As the never-ending debate about Jack the Ripper shows, these classic cases are never closed. There's always the chance that some fresh and plausible theory will crop up. And that explains the enduring appeal of true crime writing.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

P.D. James and the Wallace Case - a Classic Murder Mystery

The murder of Julia Wallace in Liverpool in 1931 has fascinated people for over eighty years. Raymond Chandler was one of many crime novelists who was puzzled as to where the truth lay. Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr were among the others, and Sayers wrote an important essay about the case, included in the Detection Club book Anatomy of Murder. John Rhode wrote two novels which drew on aspects of the case, and more recently John Hutton wrote an excellent novel inspired by it. Now it is the turn of Sayers' admirer P.D.James, herself a doyenne of the Detection Club, to investigate - and the outcome of her own detective work has appeared in The Sunday Times today.

First, a brief recap on the main facts. William Herbert Wallace was a middle aged, respectable and apparently happily married insurance agent who received a telephone message at the Chess Club where he played, from a prospective new client, R.M. Qualtrough. Wallace was asked to call at Qualtrough's home the following evening. He duly et out, but the address given to him did not exist. When he returned home, he found his wife dead. She had been battered to death. Wallace was found guilty and sentenced to death, but reprieved on appeal. However, he died not long after being released from prison.

Research undertaken by Jonathan Goodman and Roger Wilkes seemed to establish that the actual killer was a man called Parry.However,P.D.James has cast doubt on this conclusion. To follow her detailed reasoning, one has to read her essay very carefully(and it is behind a paywall). I think it's a truly fascinating piece of work.

The question she has presented us with is this - was Wallace in fact guilty, after all? She thinks he was. I think it's marvellous that she has reinvestigated the case, and her essay is intensely readable, as you would expect. Even for those who are not true crime fans, it's an engrossing mystery. I want to reflect on P.D. James' arguments before coming to any conclusions - that's the lawyer in me, I guess! - but I must say that my instinctive view is that I still believe Wallace was innocent. Anthony Berkeley said of the Crippen case (I'm paraphrasing, but only slightly) that a man "does not become a fiend overnight", and I think he was right. The psychological profile of Wallace doesn't seem to me to be that of a murderer, and there are one or two other aspects of the latest theory that don't instantly convince me. But - the debate is now reopened, and I would be extremely interested to know what others think about this enduring and extraordinary puzzle.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives - review

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, is the rather brilliant title of one of the most interesting anthologies of crime fiction that I've read in a long time. Edited by Sarah Weinman, and published by Penguin, the book collects some fine stories by a number of the finest female writers of suspense fiction in the twentieth century. Weinman's introduction is interesting and incisive, but of course, the meat of the book is in her story selection. And what a good selection it is.

Here we find some famous names, and some forgotten ones too. I was particularly pleased to see a story by Nedra Tyre, an author whose name, I suspect, will be unfamiliar to many. "A Nice Place to Stay" made a great impression on me when I first came across it many years ago - in, as far as I can recall, one of the many fine anthologies edited by Ellery Queen. It inspired me to write a story called "A Job for Life", which eventually appeared in print, and is possibly the earliest of my stories to have done so.

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is represented by a long and very clever story, almost a novella, called "The Stranger in the Car". I liked the twists in this one, as well as the insightful characterisation. Holding was a gifted writer, but even more talented was Margaret Millar, one of whose all too rare short stories is also included here. And we also have some very fine writers, ranging from the superb Shirley Jackson and the often creepy Patricia Highsmith to the subtle Celia Fremlin and the author of fhat very good story "The Purple Shroud", Joyce Harrington (and no, it was not the inspiration for The Frozen Shroud!)

Reviewers have been quick to heap praise on this book, and I'm with them. Among the most interesting assessments, as you might expect, is one from Jon L. Breen, arguably the finest living crime critic in the US. He notes Weinman's suggestion that the writers she has chosen lacked an editorial champion, but points out that their success (and they were highly regarded in their day, even if most have now faded from view) indicates that the feminist crime writers of the 70s and 80s were not breaking as much fresh ground as is sometimes argued. But what matters most is that the stories in this book represent really good entertainment. I look forward to more anthologies from Sarah Weinman.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Big Four - ITV review

Agatha Christie's Poirot began its new run on ITV tonight with The Big Four, co-written by Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard. Among other pleasures, the episode reintroduced Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson as Captain Hastings, Miss Lemon, and the world-weary cop Japp, all of whom played an enjoyable part in supporting the great David Suchet in the early days of the series. The main cast members attended one of the most memorable crime events I can recall, the Agatha Christie Centenary Banquet at Torquay' s English Riviera Centre in September 1990. It was a wonderful, unforgettable night, complete with a dramatic firework display over the bay.

Now, although I'm a Christie fan, I'm the first to acknowledge that not all her detective stories are masterpieces. The Big Four was published at a low point in her life, not long after her famous disappearance, and was cobbled together from a series of lurid episodes. As a result, the book is fragementary, and the plot material pretty risible. How do you adapt something like that so as to satisfy a 21st century television audience?

The answer is to do it confidently, but with respect for the strong points in Christie's writing and the characters. Mark Gatiss, a writer I admire, is well qualified to do this, and I felt he and Ian Hallard did a pretty good job, at least until the closing scenes, which were crazier in mood than the earlier part of the story. I sensed the writers' energy flagging a bit towards the end, with Hastings disappearing from the action for no good reason..But anyone who has read the original novel will surely agree that it would be a challenge to adapt.

Some people might argue that in some ways, it is easier to make a success of adapting a poor Christie book than a good one. In support of that view, I felt that, to take just one example, the TV version of The Sittaford Mystery was hugely disappointing. Having said that, the screenplay of The Secret of Chimneys, which was another Twenties thriller in broadly the same vein as The Big Four, was over the top from start to finish. Despite that faltering in the later stages, The Big Four worked better overall..

Of course, the presence of David Suchet is a huge asset to this series. Almost everyone who has responded to my post on Joan Hickson agrees she was the best Jane Marple, and I think there's even less argument about the definitive nature of Suchet's interpretation of Poirot. He was as good as usual in The Big Four.

Zoe Sharp and Priscilla Masters

Two crime writers who are friends of mine have published books recently, and I'd like to give each of them a mention. I've known Priscilla Masters for more than a decade now, and have fond memories of sharing a number of library events with her, two in Lancashire and one in the West Midlands. She's a very entertaining speaker, and though I didn't know her well that time we did our first gig together, she instantly put me at my ease. It's great fun appearing with her, because she is so good at keeping an audience interested and amused. Most recently, she was a very popular after dinner speaker at the St Hilda's conference in August.

Her latest novel, published by Severn House, is The Final Curtain. It's another entry in the long-running series featuring DI Joanna Piercy, and opens with her return to work after her honeymoon. As usual, the Staffordshire setting adds a realistic and appealing background to a story which opens with some apparently insignificant complaints from a woman who used to appear in a television soap opera. A review on the back cover compares Cilla with her friend and mine, Kate Ellis, and I think it's a good comparison.

Cilla works within the field of the police procedural and whodunit, whereas Zoe Sharp is more often associated with the thriller genre, in view of the success of her books about Charlie Fox, who is definitely someone you mess with at your peril. Zoe's another entertaining speaker, whose fields of expertise cover such diverse subjects as guns, motor bikes, and photography.

Zoe has also become something of a guru in the field of self-publishing, and she's brought out her latest, The Blood Whisperer (excellent title, wish I'd thought of it first!) via the imprint of Murderati Ink. The book is available as an ebook, but having received a trade paperback edition, I am pleased to confirm that it's attractively produced (not something that can always be taken for granted with these ventures.) This book is Zoe's first stand-alone thriller, and introduces London crime scene specialist Kelly Jacks. Zoe's a pacy writer (her short stories, one or two of which I've included in anthologies I've edited, are also very entertaining), and I'm confident this intriguing change of direction will further expand her considerable fan base.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Body in the Library: Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

It seems hard to believe, but almost 30 years have passed since Joan Hickson was first introduced to us as Miss Marple, in a three-part adaptation for TV of The Body in the Library, by T.R. Bowen. I decided to roll back the years and watch it again, to check whether it was as good as I remembered,and whether the view I've expressed (even on breakfast TV!) that Joan Hickson was the definitive Marple was really justified. Well, I can now confirm it was that good, and to me, Hickson is indeed the perfect Marple.

The Body in the Library was one of the first detective novels I ever read as a child, and I was really impressed. It's always been a favourite, although it's not universally regarded as a classic Agatha Christie. But I think the convoluted plot is excellent, even allowing for the fact that it depends on a trick which would, thanks to advances in forensic science, be impossible to pull off today.

Bowen's version sticks pretty closely to the original - a wise decision, I think. The script is first class, and the cast is absolutely superb. We have Gwen Watford as Dolly Bantry and Moray Watson as Colonel Bantry, and that's just a start. David Horovitch is excellent as Inspector Slack, and Raymond Francis a splendid Sir Henry Clithering. Even before I came across Christie, as a small boy, I enjoyed the TV series No Hiding Place, in which Francis played Superintendent Lockhart, and I remember it fondly to this day, even if I can't recall any of the stories.

The rest of the cast includes Trudie Styler, now better known as the wife of Sting, Jess Conrad, and John Bardon, who became a fixture in EastEnders. The acting from start to finish was up to the same high standard as the script - there was none of the hamminess that has disfigured some of the least satisfactory episodes of Agatha Christie's Marple in recen years. But best of all is Hickson's under-stated but totally convincing performance. Great viewing.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Forgotten Book - Escape to Quebec

Milward Kennedy is a writer I've featured several times in this series of Friday's Forgotten Books, and  there is much about his work that I like. He had fresh interesting ideas, a lively style, and a good understanding of people. And yet, he was something of a 'nearly man' who never quite made it as a consistent top-level performer. My choice today,. Escape to Quebec, illustrates both his strengths and his limitations.

This book is one of his later titles, first published in 1948, and one of the very few Kennedy titles which made it into a paperback edition. By this time,he had abandoned classic detection, and was trying his hand a at a different kind of story, really representing a return to his co-written debut, The Bleston Mystery, which is a light thriller. He drew on his experience of diplomacy and international relations - he was a senior figure in the International Labour Organisation - and also his knowledge of Canada, where he spent a good deal of time, in putting this novel together.

After a short prologue, we are presented with a first person narrative. Unusually, the narrator is a prisoner of war, and apparently a German Count, who has just escaped, together with a colleague, from where he was being held in Canada. The pair have been sprung in order to take part in an assassination plot. In some ways, therefore, this book resembles and anticipates the classic Frederick Forsyth best-seller, The Day of the Jackal. Forsyth's originality was much admired in its day, but you could say that Kennedy got there first (though I hasten to add that the books are very different from each other.)

There are a number of interesting and gripping scenes, and the story is very readable - I devoured it quickly, and with some pleasure. On the whole, however, I felt that there were good reasons why Kennedy failed to match the success that Forsyth later achieved. Overall, the level of excitement (given that we know that the leaders of the Western powers survived) is simply not high enough, and the romantic interest that is introduced is tepid in the extreme. Kennedy wins high marks for originality of concept, but not quite as many for execution. The story of his writing career, I'm afraid. Nevertheless, I continue to admire his desire to keep trying something new, of which this book is certainly an example.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Raymond Flynn and Dorothy Lumley

In the crime writing world, the increasing number of conventions and events mean that there are many more opportunities for socialising between crime writers than was the case even when I started out as a published writer. As a result, one bumps into people from time to time who may not become close friends but who nevertheless prove to be pleasant acquaintances.

I'm sorry to say that a couple of people who fall into that category as far as I'm concerned have recently died. One is the novelist Raymond Flynn. Ray was taken on by Hodder & Stoughton two or three years before I joined their list and we met at a Dead on Deansgate conference in Manchester at the end of the Nineties. Ray also joined us, as far as I remember, for a very enjoyable Hodder author dinner at which those attending included those very interesting writers Andrew Taylor and Nick Blincoe. Andrew has of course gone on to great things in the crime world, while Nick Blincoe has not (as far as I know) stayed with the crime genre, but has moved on to other literary projects (and I gather he was also once an adviser to Nick Clegg...)

Ray inscribed for me a couple of his books, Busy Body and A Public Body, both of which featured DCI Robert Graham. He had been a career police officer in Nottinghamshire, and his experience strengthened the books. Like me and many others, however, he departed from the Hodder list, and I lost track of him in recent years, though I gather he continued to attend CWA regional chapter meetings in the West Midlands. He is, perhaps, a good example of an enjoyable mid-list writer who faded from sight all too soon because of the vagaries of the publishing world, rather than because of any lack of ability.

Another recent loss is that of Dorothy Lumley, often known just as Dot. I was quite shocked to hear of her passing. A former publisher, she was a literary agent whom I met at a few CWA events and also at the memorable Las Vegas Bouchercon. We once had a meal together and she told me she wanted to submit a short story for a future CWA anthology.I asked her about this a few times afterwards, but she never got round to doing it - too busy representing her clients, I think. She had a loyal set of writers on her books, including that very entertaining crime writer Amy Myers, and they will miss her greatly as agent and friend .

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Tunnel - Sky Atlantic - TV review

The Tunnel, which made a very good start on Sky Atlantic this evening in the first of ten episodes, is an Anglo-French thriiller starring Stephen Dillane as Karl, an amiable British cop, and Clemence Poesy as Elise, his gifted and driven but difficult French counterpart. The case that brings them together starts with the discovery in the Channel Tunnel of a woman's body, exactly at the midpoint of the tunnel. Soon it emerges that the body has been cut in two, and then it turns out that the two halves belong to different women -one a controversial French politician, one a British prostitute.

This story is a re-make, it seems, of The Bridge, the highly acclaimed Scandinavian drama, but as I never saw The Bridge, I'm coming to it fresh. I suspect this is an advantage, given that comparisons are apt to be unflattering to re-makes. I started out by being unsure whether this was a series I'd want to watch beyond the first programme. Suffice to say that by the end, I was very much looking forward to the next instalment.

Dillane is very good, while Poesy is quite compelling, in a totally different role from her part in Birdsong. The script has quite a few witty moments, and some of the filming is quite beautiful. The storyline at this stage is suitably mysterious, with a rather nasty-seeming young British journalist receiving messages from the apparent killer, and enduring a rather memorable near-death experience while trapped in his car.

So, yes, I''ll be tuning in next week. And if The Tunnel maintains the high standard of the first episode, I feel strongly tempted to check out The Bridge as well..

Yvonne Eve Walus - guest blog

Tomorrow, I am planning a post about a couple of members of the crime fiction community who have died recently, but today there's something happier. I've never met Yvonne Eve Walus, which isn't too surprising, since she lives in New Zealand (a country that's quite high on my must-visit list, I might add), but she has contributed more than once to CWA anthologies that I've edited, and I've enjoyed her rather quirky and original approach to the short story form. As a result, I was more than happy to oblige when she offered to write a guest blog post in connection with her brand new novel. Here it is:

'It’s the eve of the release date for Operation Genocide and the first hate review is already in. As its author, I can’t help but feel a twinge of pride: the book is being slammed for being too liberal, too anti-apartheid, too anti-white. That’s a perfect breeding ground for controversy, if you take into account my very pale skin and my very pro-apartheid surname, and controversy is good. Controversy makes readers think. Controversial books are usually the ones that make a difference.

So, what is Operation Genocide about? It’s about loving your country so much, you’re willing to sacrifice your life, your sons, your principles and your basic humanity. It’s about making difficult choices in impossible situations. It’s about circumstances making either monsters or heroes out of ordinary people.

Too vague? Picture this: South Africa 1982. The country is run by a white government voted in by the white population. Other races are second-class citizens. White women do have the right to vote, but they do not enjoy the same privileges as their male counterparts: they need their husband or father’s permission to open a bank account or buy a house. If they earn a wage, they are taxed in a higher tax bracket than their husbands. Just like there are white-only bars, there are men-only bars where women aren’t allowed to enter.

Imagine being a wife in that setting. Imagine staying at home every day, chilling your husband’s beer mug, looking after the children and keeping yourself pretty for him. Imagine your shock when your husband’s murdered and you discover he was an evil scientist plotting to solve the country’s racial problems with one dose of a deadly virus. Imagine your shock when an anonymous note demands you burn the secret files you don’t have. Oh, and meanwhile, you don’t have access to the family bank account because you’re a woman.

Sound like your type of book? Then try the excerpt on my website'.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Dinner with the Sherlockians - and the Gladstones

If, twenty years ago, you'd have told me that one day I'd not only be asked to deliver an after-dinner speech, but would accept the invitation and enjoy the experience. I wouldn't have believed you. For many years, I was a very reluctant public speaker, and although I did a lot of advocacy and gave quite a few legal lectures, public speaking was something I went to some lengths to avoid. I have always felt more comfortable away from the public eye, writing rather than talking. But times change, and life as an author has made me - gradually - increasingly confident about my public speaking. I'm still not a natural, but I cherish some of the kind speaker testimonials that I've put on my website, because this is a skill I've learned slowly and with some trepidation over a long period.

Quite out of the blue, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London approached me earlier this year. They were holding their annual conference in the North West, based at Gladstone's Library, and asked me to give the main speech. After a bit of hesitation, I said yes and started thinking about how to tackle the task. I decided to include in the speech a jokey pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes story, set at the Library and featuring William Ewart Gladstone himself. I ran it by a Sherlockian expert once I'd written it, but when I learned, a few days before the event, that the guests of honour were Sir William and Lady Gladstone, members of the great man's family who are still based at Hawarden Castle, I was a bit daunted!

I did feel a bit nervous, but the evening proved very enjoyable and I met some delightful people, including the Gladstones. And it's abundantly clear that Sherlock is as popular as ever. This Society alone (and there are others) has 1400 members, and the success of the recent films and Benedict Cumberbatch show has boosted numbers. Sherlockians are apparently very active on Twitter and I learned a great deal in pleasant company.

I've always been a Sherlock fan, but this experience has strengthened my enthusiasm especially since by coincidence, I've recently been commissioned to write an essay about Conan Doyle for  a literary book to be published in the near future. I may well write another Sherlockian pastiche before long, time permitting, using an idea that came to me when I visitied a museum in Prague lsat year. And on the subject of speaking, the after dinner speech has led to another speaking invitation, this time to one of the Oxford University Societies. Again, something I never would have imagined, twenty or so years ago.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Forgotten Book - Fatality in Fleet Street

A recurrent theme of my blog posts about books of the past has been the great work done by a variety of small presses in resurrecting hidden gems from long ago. One of the newer kids on the block in this respect is Oleander, which recently set up a fresh imprint, London Bound. I'm hoping to cover another of their titles in this series before long, but today I want to focus on a particularly fascinating author and novel.

The writer is Christopher St John Sprigg, and the book is Fatality in Fleet Street, first published in 1933. When I spoke about the Golden Age at St Hilda's recently, a lady came to speak to me afterwards and said that her husband was a great admirer of Sprigg, and had been presented by Sprigg's family with copies of all of his detective novels. Lucky chap. They are rarities, and of genuine interest for their period feel. An added bonus is that Sprigg was himself was such a remarkable man.

He was only in his mid-20s when he wrote this book. He became better known as Christopher Caudwell, a poet and Marxist who was killed at the achingly young age of 29 fighting in the Spanish Civil War. I do not claim that his detective novels are masterpieces, but those I have read are definitely enjoyable. This one opens with an argument between a politician and a newspaper owner. Very topical, as I'm sure my British readers will agree!

The newspaper magnate, Lord Carpenter, is using his influence to stoke up anti-Russian feeling, despite knowing that war is bound to ensue. The Premier, Claude Sanger,is desperate to stop him. There's an echo here of Stanley Baldwin's battles with the Press, although Sprigg carefully sets his story in the near-future: Needless to say, Carpenter is murdered within hours. Could the Prime Minister be guilty? Or was it one of the many people at the newspaper who had good cause to hate Carpenter? Or even his betrayed wife?

It must be said that the story has too many characters, but even so I found it fairly easy to figure out the culprit early on (though the precise means was not clear to me). This didn't matter, because Sprigg compensates for a certain amount of clutter in his narrative with some very engaging scenes and several good lines. When you think of his youth, this book is  a notable achievement and absolutely fascinating as a period piece. I'm delighted that this London Bound issue has enabled me to read it at last. Recommended.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Italy and Crime Fiction

Like so many lovely places, Italy is a popular setting for crime stories, and I suppose the leading exponent of Italian detective fiction currently known to British readers is Andrea Camilleri, creator of Inspector Montalbano. As the years pass, I draw some comfort from the fact that he did not create his most successful character until he was nearly 70! Like Ellis Peters, he achieved international fame late in life,but it is well deserved. Camilleri comes from Sicily, a gorgeous island I've enjoyed visiting twice, but during my recent holiday I concentrated on exploring the north of the country, and spent a day with Italian friends in Florence.

Florence is the setting for the books by the late Magdalen Nabb, possibly my favourite British author of crime novels set in Italy.The fabulous Duomo also earns a thought-provoking mention in Harlan Coben's Stay Close, which I'm reading in the moment, though that book is firmly set in the US. Flroentine daggers were popular murder weapons during the Golden Age in particular, but I resisted any temptation to invest in one of my own whilst I was in the city.

My visit reminded me that it's a long time since I read any of the Zen novels by the late Michael Dibdin. One I never read was Back to Bologna, but that's now zoomed up the to-read list. I can't recall if he set any of his stories in any of the smaller, but quite breathfaking, places within easy reach of Bologna. Modena, for instance, is famous for its cathedral, and I was also struck by the nearby 'haranguing stone', an elevated slab in the piazza on which wrongdoers were placed to face public opprobrium.

Ferrara is, to my mind, even more impressive, with its terrific moated castle,grassed ramparts and a host of wonderful sights. As I was walking round, the idea for one of the two short stories I mentioned in my blog  post yesterday came to mind.

Finally, Ravenna. It's famous for its mosaics, and these really are dazzling. The old mausoleum and the archaeological museum, with its ivory throne, are among countless sights packed in to a small area, easily walkable. You can also find Dante;'s grave and an interesting exhibition, which gave me a much better understanding of his work (perhaps I should read Dan Brown's Inferno too?) Dorothy L. Sayers translated and admired Dante, but I don't know if she ever visited Ravenna. If so, I'm sure she was impressed. Like Ferrara, it would make a terrific setting for a detective novel, and I'm sure that some writers have already made good use of it. I look forward to tracking down one or two examples.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Back from Bologna

Italy is the setting for a great many fine crime novels and also, without question, one of my favourite countries in the world. So I thoroughly enjoyed spending a week in north Italy, based in Bologna, but venturing out to some of the historic and beautiful towns in the area. Bologna itself is a vibrant city with an ancient university and plenty of fascinating places to visit, including its very own leaning tower, as well as plenty of street performers, open air concerts and so on.

You could spend a lot longer than a few days there, just marvelling at the history and architecture as well as the culture, the often hidden canals, and of course the food.In terms of sightseeing, first stop was the impressive library in the Piazza Maggiore. It's unique in that you can also visit the ancient Roman ruins and the old town that lie beneath the building, some of which can be seen through panels in the floor at ground level. And then it was on to the Whispering Gallery, Eataly (a combination of bookshop and restaurant that stocked loads of Golden Age classics and served very good food) and the amazing Teatro Anatomica, where public dissections used to take place. Spot the dissecting table in the photo!

The Basilica of San Luca stands just outside the old city walls, at the top of a hill that can be reached via a walkway with 666 arches - a very stiff climb in searing heat, and I confess I opted for the little train that wove through the city streets before tackling the hill. The result was spectacular views, enjoyed without being exhausted. Just as well, since there was lot of walking to be done, both in Bologna and in the other towns within easy reach by train.

Despite Italy's economic problems, Bologna seems a pretty affluent place and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of bookshops, even by the standards of university cities (incidentally, there were also loads of bookshops in Budapest, but my Hungarian is even worse than my Italian!). Reading does seem to be enormously popular in Italy and tomorrow I'll say a bit more about Italian crime fiction. I did manage to get some reading done, mainly on the plane and train trips, but the real focus was on discovering a part of the world that seems to me to have enormous appeal. I'm also pleased to say that Bologna gave me two brand new ideas for short stories, though with my current schedule, I'm not quite sure when I'll get round to writing them.

Finally, a special word of thanks to the Bologna tour guide, namely Catherine Edwards, a linguist who is dividing her year abroad between Bologna, Rome and Berlin, lucky thing. An aspiring journalist who has already worked on a number of publications, including The Big Issue, for which she reviewed Harlan Coben's latest, she has just started her own blog, Bologna to Berlin. Biased as perhaps I am, I think makes very interesting reading and it will be featuring on the blogroll shortly.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Ellis Peters and Wellington Literary Festival

This year sees the centenary of the birth of Edith Pargeter, better known to crime lovers as Ellis Peters, the creator of Brother Cadfael. Although she often travelled abroad, set many books overseas, and was a noted translator of works written in Czech, she was first and foremost a woman of Shropshire, the county where she was born and spent nearly all her life, and which featured in many of her best books. Pleasingly, Wellington Town Council in Shropshire decided to celebrate her at its Literary Festival this year and I was honoured to be asked to be the guest speaker, discussing her life and work.

I imagine the invitation stemmed in part from the fact that I edited a collection of obscure Peters stories for a book published by Crippen and Landru some years ago, The Trinity Cat, and in part from the fact that I've written about her work on a few occasions, for instance in Following the Detectives, edited by Maxim Jakubowski. So I was glad to accept, although as I journeyed down the M6 to Wellington through ghastly traffic, I reflected that travel hasn't improved as much as it should since Cadfael journeyed around in the twelfth century.

One thing that impressed me enormously was the venue for the Festival. This is a large and recently built leisure centre which includes a public library, and much else besides. The very pleasant town councillor who introduced my talk was clearly proud of the centre, and quite right too. This is exactly the sort of project that provides tremendous benefits to a community, and my impression was that the facilities are well used and much appreciated.

Putting a library together with other leisure resources may sometimes be complicated and far from cheap, but the social dividends can be hugely rewarding if it is done well (in a more modest way, it's been done in my home village,Lymm, and again the results have been admirable.) In the 21st century, when maintaining social cohesion is, in many ways, as important as ever it has been, a high calibre venue such as this brings people together and ensures that events like the Literary Festival are not only possible but likely to be successful and greatly valued.

The festival committee had certainly done a good job in getting an eclectic list of speakers: it's not often that Germaine Greer and I are metaphorically rubbing shoulders in the same programme. Although I've visited nearby Ironbridge before, I 'd never stopped in Wellington previously, but I was really struck by what the local people, and their authority, have created. And I'm sure Edith Pargeter would have been impressed as well.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Forgotten Book - Cicely Disappears

Today's Forgotten Book is one that I'm fairly confident few readers of this blog will have encountered. What's more, it was written by one of the finest novelists of the Golden Age. It's a fabulous rarity,conceivably the most sought-after of all Golden Age mysteries, and I was lucky enough to be loaned a dust jacketed copy in superb condition. I've no idea how much it was worth, but quite a bit, and you can be sure I took good care of it before returning it to its owner.And for good measure, it is a novel with a curious history. What's not to like? Well.....

The book is Cicely Disappears, and the author is A.Monmouth Platts. Now, if that name is unfamiliar to you, I should add that it's a pseudonym, composed of the names of two houses owned by Anthony Berkeley Cox, whose much better known pen-names were Anthony Berkeley and Francis Iles. Regular readers of this blog will be well aware that I'm a fan of Berkeley-Iles. He really was an interesting writer.

This particular story began life as a serialisation published by The Daily Mirror, of all newspapers,under the by-line of A.B. Cox. The Mirror ran a competition with prizes for those who guessed the solution correctly.The story was at that stage called The Wintringham Mystery, and Tony Medawar, a great researcher into the Golden Age, published a piece in CADS some time ago explaining that Agatha Christie's husband Archie was one of the runners-up. Did Agatha enter the competition under Archie's name, I wonder?

Berkeley made some changes to the story, and published it as a novel under his new pen-name a year later. So, what of the story? It's a book of legendary rarity, but I am afraid I think this is a case where obscurity is deserved. Really, the changes to the story are largely padding, and the mystery of Cicely's fate is dragged out in a way that tempts one to skip to the end. I'm so glad I have had the chance to satisfy my curiosity by reading this particular forgotten novel, but I'm afraid the final verdict is that those who are less fortunate are not really missing out. The books that appeared under the Berkeley and Iles names are infiinitely better.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Running Heroine - guest blog by Jessica Mann

The competing merits of stand-alone and series crime novels is a topic of perennial interest, and I'm delighted to say that Jessica Mann is today contributing a guest blog on this very topic.

"Off the top of your head how many crime writers can you think of whose books are all stand alone? In fact, can you think of any? Because even those who started with one-offs usually move on to re-using the same characters, as HRF Keating, did when the first Inspector Ghote followed five stand-alones. Authors can be bored by their running heroes, as Christie seemed to become with Poirot.  Lindsey Davis and Val McDermid  both gave themselves breaks recently , each writing a one-off novels, but then returned to their series characters, in, almost by definition, “series places”.

Other writers feature not so much series as recurring places and people. One is Michael Gilbert, of whom Martin Edwards wrote , “It is a feature of this author’s work that he regularly created fresh and engaging characters who would pop up in various novels and short stories, without any one achieving dominance.” Characters, and  places: having adopted Thomas Hardy’s cathedral city of Melchester in his first book, Close Quarters, he  revived that scene of crime thirty years later  in The Black Seraphim.   

I enjoy these surprise encounters even  more than meeting reliable old favorites. It was fun when Margery Allingham’s Amanda Fitton,  introduced  in  one of the  early, more light-hearted crime novels,  reappeared half a dozen books later in The Fashion In Shrouds,  after which she’s a fixture. Agatha Christie’s return to Hercule Poirot in her last book, Curtain, is in  a different category, as she wrote the book many years earlier and put it aside for later publication.

Minor characters reappear in my own books; and some  are connected by   series heroines.   Professor Thea Crawford,  reluctant detective in The Only Security and Captive Audience, plays a small part  in subsequent novels featuring her former  pupil,  the archaeologist Tamara Hoyland. Both of them know   Dr Fidelis Berlin, introduced  in A Private Inquiry, and taking  a minor role in Under A Dark Sun and a major one in The Voice From The Grave.

The  heroes and heroines of crime fiction  often grow up (as Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion did)  even reach retirement age, like Ian Rankin’s Rebus, but they usually remain vigorous and influential, as did Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn. Very few  detective heroes  grow realistically old, though Ruth Rendell’s Wexford,  Peter Dickinson’s Pibble and Hercule Poirot do.

And I hope the septuagenarian Fidelis is credible  in my new book, Dead Woman Walking. One of its minor  characters, a young Isabel Drummond,  is revived forty years after her first appearance in  A Charitable End. It was my first novel – so perhaps it no longer counts as a stand-alone."