Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A Year for Remembering

2014 has been an intensely enjoyable year, one in which I've felt thankful that good health and several slices of luck enabled me to pack a good many magic moments into the space of twelve months. Once again, writing these blog posts has proved rewarding, and some of the information and guidance I've received from those who have got in touch has been invaluable in aiding my researches into the history of the Detection Club and the CWA. Only today, for instance, someone got in touch from Norway with some intriguing info of which I was wholly unaware.

Quite apart from the blog, I've done lots of writing, although you'd doubt this was true, if you judged by the fact that I haven't published a new novel. The Frozen Shroud did come out in paperback, however, and I've continued to have the excuse to explore the Lakes (the photo above is of Ravenglass in the evening) in the name of research. The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes appeared as an ebook (though the stories were written over a period of more than a decade.) I also edited the CWA anthology Guilty Parties, and contributed a short story to that collection, as well as to anthologies edited by Len Tyler and Ayo Onatade, and Hughes Schlueter.  The biggest moment for me as a writer, though, came at Crimefest, when I was awarded the CWA Margery Allingham prize for "Acknowledgments" (below) and the prize included ebook publication by Bloomsbury Reader, which also allowed two of my other, earlier stories to become available to readers for just a few pennies. I also shared vicariously in John Harvey's pleasure at winning a Dagger for the superb story he contributed to Deadly Pleasures.

On the non-fiction front, I contributed essays to three books, the subjects being Conan Doyle's short stories, Anthony Berkeley's short stories, and Gilbert Adair's Golden Age pastiches. Much of the year, though, was devoted to The Golden Age of Murder, and one very magical; moment came when my agent told me that Harper Collins had made an offer for it. The ideal publisher for that particular book. I've also loved becoming associated with the British Library. I began by writing intros for several of their republished crime classics, and ended up becoming series consultant, and agreeing to edit a total of five anthologies of short stories which will be published over the next two years. I also wrote an intro for the ebook reissue of Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand and a Sherlockian compendium for Arcturus. Among crime writing get togethers, the CADS dinner in spring was attended by those great genre experts Doug Greene (see below, with Eddie Jones) Barry Pike, Tony Medawar and others.

In terms of events, I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a panellist at Crimefest, and giving a talk at St HIlda's, and I also had fun at the big festival at Harrogate in July. I hosted murder mystery evenings in the North East (where a trip to Hartlepool inspired the story "Lucky Liam") and Stoke-on-Trent. One truly unforgettable occasion was dinner at St Hilda's in the company of the great Colin  Dexter, who presented me with an inscribed script from Lewis, a very generous gesture and typical of the man. I was saddened by the death of P.D. James, whom I last saw in February, at the Detection Club AGM. I've spent time this year becoming involved with other members of the Club on a terrific new project, details of which will become public at a later date. I've also benefited from wonderful hospitality from friends who have put me up on my jaunts "down south" - this kindness seems to me typical of the crime writing community. This has been especially evident in the help I've been given by those on both sides of the Atlantic who generously volunteered their time to read and comment on the manuscript of The Golden Age of Murder.

When I was up in the Lake District researching for The Dungeon House, I also benefited from a lot of help from local people whose contribution will, I hope, help to make this the best Lake District Mystery yet. One fresh experience was my first ever school reunion: great fun, and rather nostalgic too. I don't forget that four of the six contemporaries to whom I was closest when growing up are no longer around. A reminder that "do it now" is a very good philosophy. Amongst other things, I've started going to more exhibitions (ranging from Piet Mondrian to Sherlock Holmes) and gained fresh insights into the mysterious closed communities of the Inns of Court..

I read a number of good new books this year, although in retrospect no one title stands head and shoulders above the others, together with plenty of older novels, which were more of a mixed bag, with some great finds and a few disappointments - occasionally, even I must admit, there's a reason why books are forgotten!.On TV, the best crime drama I saw, by a distance, was the brilliant Happy Valley. If Burt Bacharach's dazzling two-hour concert in Manchester (below) turns out to be the last time I see the maestro (and composer of Magic Moments!) in live performance, well, that evening left memories that will stay with me. So will the sight of the mass of poppies at the Tower of London (top photo.).

2014 was the year I realised my ambition of stepping away from life as a partner in a law firm so as to devote more time to fun stuff - I still enjoy the legal work I do as a consultant, but it's a joy not to have that dreaded daily commute, and I feel at least ten years younger as a result  even though I don't look it. A reduced working week gave more time for writing and researching, and for trips away, including to Guernsey, for a CWA conference superbly organised by Jason Monaghan, when at long last I managed to make the journey to Alderney: a lovely island, though I've still not written up the short story I mean to set there.

Further afield, I saw the Northern Lights from a Norwegian ship, visited the North Cape, and found that it's possible to delight in  a place even when you are colder than you've ever been in your life. I recovered in the Caribbean, visiting places like Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire, and later went to another very sunny part of the world, the wonderful island of Sicily. Again, I have a Sicilian story idea just waiting to be written.

A few days in Paris reacquainted me with many of its great sights, while a week in Berlin supplied a poignant experience. I strolled through the Brandenburg Gate, which I'd last seen from a distance, when it was part of Communist East Germany, and inaccessible to people from the west. The reunification of Berlin is one of Europe's great stories of the past fifty years, and the city is one of the most exciting I've ever visited.

My final foreign trip memory concerns Malice Domestic, held in Washington D.C. I had the unexpected honour of representing the late Reg Hill, who was the subject of Malice Remembers, and the Malice community proved incredibly generous. I met old friends like Joni Langevoort, Doug Greene, and Tom Schantz, and met some lovely people for the first time, including Josh Pachter and his wife, Verena Rose, Joan Hess, Les Blatt, and Art Taylor. I recorded a podcast of "No Flowers", and had brunch with Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and dinner with Steve Steinbock, Melodie Johnson Howe, Kathryn Leigh Scott (below) Doug Greene and others. Steve it was who interviewed me on stage about Reg - one of the best British crime writers.

I can't end the year without saying another big thank you to those of you who read this blog, and comment and email so interestingly and constructively. When I started out in 2007, I never imagined that writing a blog would enrich my life in the way that it has. It can become self-indulgent to look back too much, but life is short, and I'm convinced that it's important to remember the good things that happen, and make the most of them while one can. Yes, for me 2014 has been a lucky year - no question! And tomorrow, I shall start looking to the future.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Imitation Game - film review

Although I watch plenty of films, I usually only make a single annual pilgrimage to the cinema, at this time of year. This last couple of years I've seen two great movies, Skyfall and Gravity, and this year the choice was The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, who is most famous for his work on cracking the Enigma code.

I find codes and ciphers fascinating, although I don't always have the time and patience (or ability, in many cases) to try to solve them. They often crop up in Golden Age novels, and sometimes the explanations as to how to crack them can be rather tedious. And a story about building an early, complex computer could be very dull indeed if not handled correctly. The challenge for the writer of the screenplay, Graham Moore, was how to make the narrative gripping. He rose to the challenge quite splendidly.

Of course, he was helped by top-notch casting. Cumberbatch is brilliant, as usual, and Keira Knightley compelling, if perhaps slightly miscast as the gifted woman cryptanalyst, Joan Clarke (she played her as a strong woman confronting prejudice, which was fine, but much as I like Keira, I gained no real insight into the brilliance that Clarke must have had). Charles Dance and Mark Strong were very good indeed, as top brass at Bletchley, and Rory Kinnear excelled as a sympathetic policeman.

Moore employed several techniques. He used three timelines: the war years at Bletchley, Turing's schooldays, when he falls in love with another boy, and the post-war period when he was arrested on a charge of gross indecency. The story zipped around between the timelines, but was never confusing, partly because Moore delineated his characters clearly - quite simply, but in most cases with some depth. The film is based on a true story, but Moore was not afraid to deviate from the historical facts on numerous occasions. I didn't mind this, because it made for a pacy story that seemed convincing even if some aspects of it are debatable in terms of accuracy. And it seemed to me that Moore handled his depiction of Turing's sexual orientation sensitively and effectively, despite leaving some questions unanswered in my mind. You have to make choices as a writer, and I felt he made some very good choices. An excellent film, then, and a fine example of the screenplay writer's art.   

Monday, 29 December 2014

The Real World of Sherlock and Conan Doyle's War

Sherlock Holmes has often been in my thoughts this past twelve months, for a host of reasons. The publication of The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes is among them, naturally, but in addition to enjoying the Sherlock exhibition at the Museum of London (still running, by the way), I've read some good books about the great consulting detective.

One of them is The Real World of Sherlock Holmes by B.J. Rahn, recently published by Amberley. I've known B.J. for a long time - she's an American Anglophile, who usually spends part of the year in London, and she's extremely knowledgeable about the genre. If you didn't know she was an eminent academic, you'd guess from the amount of space devoted here to notes and a bibliography, and there is a suitable scholastic care about her study of the context in which Sherlock "existed".

She takes a number of different themes (including forensics, and the policing context of the stories) and for me the most fascinating part of the book concerns her analysis of the way Conan Doyle used, but adjusted, the storytelling model adopted by Poe in his ground-breaking stories about the first of the "great detectives", Dupin. There's much of interest, too, about the way in which Conan Doyle's deep interest in true crime informed stories such as "The Bruce-Partington Plans".

I'm delighted that Amberley have published B.J.'s book, and I suspect that even lifelong Sherlock fans will find a few things here that they didn't know previously. Amberley have also published Conan Doyle's War, which is an edited version of what Conan Doyle had to say about the British campaign in France and Flanders a century ago. Given that this year has seen the centenary of the outbreak of the so-called Great War, this is a timely publication, and it illustrates Conan Doyle's versatility as a writer. But nobody could doubt that his finest work concerned Sherlock (except, of course, Conan Doyle himself - but what do authors know?)

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Golden Age reflections

A couple of days before Christmas, I was interviewed on the phone by a journalist from one of the main national newspapers. He was asking me why I thought there was such a revival of interest in Golden Age detective fiction at the moment. I came up with a number of reasons, but I'd also love to know the opinions of readers of this blog. Why - assuming that you agree there is such a revival - do you think it's happening right now? As for the journalist (someone I've often read, but never spoken to previously) I was impressed to learn that he'd just read no fewer than eight Golden Age books, including several British Library Crime Classics -  in quick succession - and he'd very much enjoyed them.

Among a number of Christmas treats was a unique one, as far as I am concerned. Someone who has a wonderful collection of Golden Age rarities allowed me the chance to read an unpublished manuscript of a novel of detection by a well-regarded Golden Age writer. Quite thrilling, and definitely a privilege. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and I'm not completely sure why it was never published (though naturally I'm tempted to guess/invent a story about it.). I'd love to see the story published, and I'm in discussions about this possibility,but it's far from straightforward, and I really don't know if it will happen. I will say more about this book at a later date.

Now that my work on The Golden Age of Murder is pretty much completed, I'm also doing some more reading as I work on more anthologies for the British Library. These are aimed mainly at readers who are relatively unfamiliar with Golden Age fiction, and of course it is exceptionally difficult to find good stories that are not well-known to fans  However, I've set myself an informal goal of including in each book a minimum of two stories (preferably more) that are genuinely obscure and unlikely to have been read by more than a small number of people.

In this aim I've been assisted by a number of friends, and also one or two correspondents whom I've never met. And now, I wonder, are there any readers of this blog who can point me in the direction of an enjoyable but more or less unknown Golden Age short story (treating the Golden Age here very broadly, so as to extend beyond the inter-war period) and with a setting in a country house or the countryside generally? If so, I'd love to hear from you.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death - Sky 1 TV review

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death aired on Sky 1 this evening,with Ashley Jensen playing the eponymous Agatha. It was based on the book of the same name written by M.C. Beaton, a prolific and extremely popular author of light mysteries. She also created Hamish Macbeth, who made the transition to television almost twenty years ago. I read a couple of the Macbeth books, but I've never read the Agatha Raisin series, so I am not sure how faithful the screenplay was to the original.

It's essentially a comedy thriller, and I've seen it described in the media as something of a reaction to dark and broodiing Scandinavian dramas.(My own feeling on that score is that there is, and always should be, room for all the different types of crime stories, ranging from darkest noir to fluffiest cosy and everything in between.) There are a number of shows of this type around at present - Death in Paradise and Father Brown have both enjoyed more success than many would have expected, while Grantchester has quickly earned a loyal following. As with Father Brown and Grantchester, there's more than a touch of Midsomer about the lovely rural setting of this story.

Agatha is a hard-nosed PR expert who has made a packet and sold her company so that she can relocate to a life of peace in the Cotswolds. (I also thought I spotted a scene set at the Bristol hotel which is home to Crimefest). She does not fit in to village life,and decides to cheat her way to success in the annual quiche making contest, a plan that backfires when her quiche appears to be responsible for the death by poisoning of the judge of the contest, the local Lothario.

This was a two hour show - in other words, rather longer than episodes of Father Brown and Death in Paradise - and this enabled the scriptwriter to establish the characters, and basic situation, although to me it seemed on the long side for such a lightweight piece. There were a number of good jokes, and Ashley Jensen's performance was energetic and engaging. I can't say that it had me on the edge of my seat, and it wasn't as funny or as sharp as The Wrong Mans, which returned to the screen the other day in a two-part episode that I very much enjoyed, but it passed the time pleasantly enough..

Forgotten Book - Family Matters

Family Matters, my latest Forgotten Book, isn't set at Yuletide, but Christmas is a family time of year, so perhaps it's an appropriate choice. The novel dates from 1934. It is one of four books that C.E. Vulliamy published before the Second World War under the name Anthony Rolls, although he wrote several crime novels under his own name in later years. Way back in 2009, I wrote a blog post about his debut, Clerical Error, and I've been meaning to come back to this writer for ages. Now I've read two of his other books in quick succession. This one is excellent, and if it were not for my reservations about the latter stages of the story, I'd call it a masterpiece.

The family of the title is the Kewdinghams (one of Vulliamy's quirks is a taste for unusual surnames; I suppose he was trying to avoid the risk of libel, but the overall effect is off-putting, at least to me.) Robert, age 47, has been unemployed since he lost his job in the Slump, and he lives increasingly in a fantasy world. His wife, Bertha, is some years younger, attractive, and fed up. She has two admirers, one of them a doctor, the other a novelist.

I don't want to say too much about the way in which the story develops, because if you read it, you'll find it a pleasure to come afresh to the central situation which makes this book very distinctive. Suffice to say that it is to do with poisons. Dorothy L. Sayers heaped praise on this book, but even she admitted that she had no idea whether what Vulliamy was saying about poisons was accurate. I didn't find it especially convincing, but that didn't matter much. It's a very, very good set-up, handled with plenty of irony and satire.

I became engrossed in the situation and the characters, but I did feel that once a death finally occurs, Vulliamy became so preoccupied with unravelling the tangle he'd created that he lost sight of the characters, and this for me was the flaw that deprives the book of the status of absolute classic. Vulliamy was influenced by Francis Iles, but in the three Iles books, the psychology of the central characters remains of critical importance from start to finish. I think that is, in part, why Iles' books, or at least the first two, have stood the test of time better. But Vulliamy was a fascinating writer, and this is a book I can warmly recommend. There is also an excellent review on the Pretty Sinister blog, and an equally good article about the author by Curtis Evans in issue 68 of CADS - Curt commented on my original post about Rolls/Vulliamy, and it remains the case today, as then, that his crime fiction deserves to be reprinted.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Ghost Stories for Christmas

Ghost stories are often told around Christmas, and I'm getting into the seasonal mood by writing one myself, for a forthcoming anthology. It's provisionally entitled "Through the Mist". I've dabbled in the genre before, and in the spring, I had the, for me, unusual experience of recording one of my own stories, the ghost story "No Flowers", for an Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine podcast. Great fun.

I've also been getting into the right frame of mind by reading more of Robert Aickman's stories of the uncanny - four collections of his stories were republished earlier this year by Faber, and they are excellent and memorable. They are, really, stories of the uncanny, rather than just ghost stories, and all sorts of strange, often inexplicable things, happen in them. Strongly recommended.

I've also started reading Mary Elizabeth Braddon's The Face in the Glass, a paperback collection of stories published by the British Library, who get everywhere these days, and a very good thing too. I've written about Mrs Braddon before on this blog, but these stories were all new to me. One particularly good one is "The Island of Old Faces", which features a Balliol man in unexpected surroundings...

This is my last blog post until Boxing Day, but from then on, I'll be scheduling daily posts until early January, as I've noticed that readership of the blog usually rises quite sharply at around this time of year (an escape from seasonal merriment or just because there's more time to read? I'm not sure.) Before I go, I'd like to wish all readers of this blog a very merry Christmas, and to say thanks once again for your interest and support, your comments and your emails. Very much appreciated.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Long Kiss Goodnight - film review

I missed The Long Kiss Goodnight when it first came out back in 1996, and only now have I caught up with it. I'm glad I did, because this is an action thriller with a difference. The Christmassy background is appealing, but what really makes the movie work is a winning combination of action and wit,with excellent performances from several very bankable actors.

Sam Caine (Geena Davis) is a schoolteacher living in Pennsylvania who is trying to solve a mystery of her own. She suffers from a severe case of amnesia (and trivia buffs will no doubt spot that her very name is a relevant anagram) and has no memory of her life prior to eight years ago. She was pregnant at the time she lost her memory, and has a young daughter, but no idea of the father's identity. She is now in love with a decent man, but has spent a lot of money on trying to find out who she is. Now she is scraping the barrel by engaging the services of Mitch, a dodgy gumshoe played by Samuel L. Jackson.

After Sam is involved in a car accident, suffering concussion, her memory starts to come back. It soon emerges that she has skills with a knife. and when she is attacked by an escaped convict who bears her a grudge, she dispatches him with deadly efficiency. Soon it becomes clear that her past life was very different, and very dangerous. With Mitch's help, she makes contact with a former colleague, played by Brian Cox, but then her past catches up with her in dramatic fashion. The excellent cast also includes Patrick Malahide, one of my favourite screen bad guys (even though he did play good old Inspector Alleyn as well).

All in all, the film stands up very well despite the passage of time since it was first screened. Part of the credit for this goes to the actors, and in particular Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson. But much of the success of the film is, I think, due to the quality of the writing. There's plenty of humour in the screenplay, and a couple of twists near the end are neatly foreshadowed in earlier scenes - a sign of careful writing. Shane Black, the writer, is well-known for his action thrillers, and this accomplished story is highly entertaining.

Finishing a Book

When is a book finished? Now, I'm sure some people may think that a silly question. After all, I'm an author. If I don't know the answer, there's not much hope for me, right? Yet I don't think the answer is as obvious as it may seem. When you reach "the end", it may only be the end of the beginning. Integral to the process of writing a book is the process of revision. And that can sometimes seem an endless task.

I've "finished" two books lately, one a novel, one a non-fiction book, not to mention a handful of short stories. But I always find it rather difficult to let go, knowing that more work can, almost always, improve a piece of writing. There have to be limits, though, otherwise one would never get anything published.

My latest novel, another Lake District Mystery, is a book I'm excited about, because I feel it's the best in the series to date. Its provisional title is The Dungeon House. Yet there is always the temptation to refine a manuscript, searching for a bit more insight into character and setting, maybe one or two pithier phrases or metaphors. All the more so with a book that (as mine tend to do) has quite a large cast of characters. How can I make it easier for readers to follow what is going on, without making it too easy and the puzzles too obvious? Every day fresh ideas spring to mind. But you have to draw a line somewhere.

The same is true of The Golden Age of Murder. With non-fiction, the challenge is different but equally real. There is always more information to be discovered, more source material to find. This is a book which covers a huge amount of ground, and it is in the nature of such a book that there are gaps. I'm limited by the scope of my own reading - so why not spend more time reading around the subject, before finally sending off the manuscript? There is always more to learn...

Up to a point, such anxieties are reasonable, but any author needs to come to terms with the limits of what is realistically achievable. My answer to the question about when a book is finished is this. When I feel confident enough for readers to see it, and that is when I feel that, despite any imperfections that may remain, it's as good as I can make it within a reasonable period of time. In the end, an author does need to be willing to let go, and face up to the judgment of readers, recognising that it's impossible to please everyone. We strive, as writers, for perfection, knowing that we can never truly attain it. But if we do our best to entertain and, perhaps, inform, that's a job worth doing. And with the next book, the challenge is to make the end product even better....

Sunday, 21 December 2014

And the latest runaway bestseller is....

I was truly delighted to read a terrific and very timely article in today's Independent, telling the story of Mystery in White. Sales of the book are now already at 60,000 - in a matter of weeks. I've talked previously about this extraordinary phenomenon, but I do think that it illustrates that fiction, like so many other things in life, is subject to the vagaries of fashion.

Take Scandi crime, for instance. I was reading Sjowall and Wahloo, and the (still) much less well known Poul Orum in my teens, and remember wondering why so few people seemed to take an interest in them. It's really only in the last few years that a combination of good books, good publishing, television, and a little luck have combined to make Nordic Noir seem to be omnipresent. A reaction is setting in now, possibly, but even as public tastes shift, it will remain true that there are many very fine Scandinavian novels out there - and not just those published in recent times.

In Britain and the US, and to some extent elsewhere, the "Golden Age" between the wars saw an explosion of interest in well-plotted whodunits (and some that weren't so well plotted). Countless people had a go at writing them. The reaction, when it came after the Second World War, was correspondingly severe. Apart from Christie and a few other "Crime Queens", Golden Age auhtors and their work generally fell out of favour.

I've always loved them, though, and I began thinking about the book that eventually became The Golden Age of Murder a good many years ago (so long ago, I kept a card index at one time of my researches; that "system" didn't last!) I suppose the success of the British Library Classic Crime books shows that, if one is patient for long enough, the roulette wheel of public taste will move in one's favour. It's a shame that J. J. Farjeon is not around to see how popular his book has become in the 21st century, but it's nevertheless a heart-warming story - a reminder to authors that the books we write may, just possibly, enjoy a good life long after we are gone.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Forgotten Book - Casual Slaughters

Today's Forgotten Book is a scarce title by a Golden Age author who displayed enough talent in his brief career to make one regret that he did not continue to write detective stories. The title (a good one, as so many Shakespearean titles are) is Casual Slaughters, and the author is James Quince. James Who? do you ask? Well, his reputation has certainly faded in the eighty-plus years that have passed since his last novel appeared. But he deserves to be rescued from literary oblivion.

James Quince was a pseudonym that concealed the identity of James Reginald Spittal. Spittal attended London University and Salisbury Theological College, and was ordained in 1898. He was at one time the vicar at Holy Trinity church in Lambeth, and among his various other posts, I'm sure one or two must have been rural parishes.. In 1930, he turned to detective fiction with some success. His first two books were published by Hodder, but they seem to have dropped him, and Casual Slaughters was published by a smaller firm. I find that puzzling, because it's a splendid read, and I feel lucky that my copy is signed by the author, because I suspect there aren't many such copies knocking around.

The tale makes excellent use of the author's knowledge of the type of people who become involved with a Parochial Church Council. The book opens and ends with a PCC meeting, and it's due to the PCC's decision-making that a corpse is discovered in a village graveyard. In due course, another death occurs. The book is narrated by a bachelor called Blundell, and I came up with a solution to Quince's puzzle that I thought rather ingenious. Sadly it was wrong...

The strength of this book lies in Quince's wry humour, which has worn pretty well, on the whole. The interplay of characters is very nicely done, and I'm sure he drew on his own experiences of English village life in evoking the mood and setting. The Rector, unsurprisingly, is especially well done. It's a quiet book, but fun to read, and I'm disappointed that he never wrote another. Perhaps pastoral duties became too pressing. But I've just acquired his first book, The Tin Town, and very much look forward to reading it. Even more so after reading this review by Curt Evans, which - in a coincidence so spooky that it really ought to trigger some sort of mystery plot - appeared on the same day as this review. You know how it is, you wait decades for a review of a book by James Quince, and then two turn up at once....

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Niagara - movie review

Niagara is a 1953 movie, directed by Henry Hathaway, which I found tucked away on the tv schedules. It was described as "Hitchcockian" and starred Marilyn Monroe, and these twin temptations proved irresistible. And I'm glad I watched it, although it doesn't rank as a classic crime film by a long stretch. The most memorable aspect of the film is not even Marilyn, but the vivid photography of Niagara Falls, which play a key part in the story-line.

Casey Adams and Jean Peters play a honeymooning couple whose cabin at the Falls is taken by another pair, George and Rose Loomis, played by Monroe and Joseph Cotten. Monroe is young and sexy, but her husband is jealous and depressive. It soon emerges that he has plenty to be jealous and depressed about, since his wife is encouraging her lover to kill him.

There are a few pleasing plot developments, but on the whole the story is commonplace. In a sense, the story-line is that of a film noir - but Niagara is shot in glorious Technicolor. The contradiction is by no means utterly fatal to the mood of unhealthy emotional tension, but it does contribute to the slightly unrealistic "feel" of the film. You can have a "noir" film shot in sunlight and colour- the brilliant Body Heat is an example - but Niagara  isn't in the same league as Lawrence Kasdan's masterpiece.

Niagara is, perhaps, an attempt to focus more on the characters' emotional lives than the typical Hitchcock thriller. Again, though, this was much better done years later in Body Heat. When a film is described as "Hitchcockian", one expects edge-of-the-chair suspense, of the kind delivered in some of the best thrillers by Chabrol and Truffaut. Niagara is a lesser work, but still worth watching. And it does make me want to visit those Falls....

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Missing - BBC One - final episode review (no spoilers)

The Missing came to an end on BBC 1 tonight, after eight weeks of mounting tension. I don't intend to say anything in this post that amounts to a spoiler, which limits the scope of my comments. But one thing I can say is that, for me,this series was second only to the superb Happy Valley as British television crime series of the year. I said when reviewing episode one that I intended to watch the following week, and soon I was completely hooked. It became must-watch television.

A great deal of credit goes to the writers, Harry and Jack Williams, as well as to an excellent cast. James Nesbitt and Frances O'Connor were brilliant as the parents whose five year old son goes missing during a holiday in France, portraying with great sensitivity the trauma of such a terrible experience,and also the different ways in which their characters struggled to deal with an almost unimaginable calamity.

I say 'almost' unimaginable,because I suspect many, perhaps most, parents have found themselves contemplating, at one time or another, what it would feel like if such a catastrophe tore their lives apart. But it's not the sort of thing one wants to dwell on for very long. For me, the emotions portrayed in some scenes of The Missing were almost too much to bear.

That's not to say it was a perfect story in terms of plotting, and I had mixed feelings about the one or two aspects of the final episode, and the final scene in particular. Some viewers, I know, have found the switches between events surrounding the disappearance and those of the present day quite hard to follow, although I felt the transitions were done quite smoothly, given the complexity of the story structure. Overall, this was a powerful and affecting drama, and one that will stay in my mind for a long time.   

Monday, 15 December 2014

Bodies in the Bookshop

I've just received my author copy of Bodies in the Bookshop, edited by L.C. Tyler and Ayo Onatade, and published by Ostara Books in association with Richard Reynolds of Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge, who contributes a foreword. The idea of the book was to pay tribute to independent bookshops everywhere, and also to celebrate Heffers' annual "Bodies in the Bookshop" event.

The concept was that the stories would tackle one of four themes: books, bookshops, Cambridge, or libraries, although as things turned out, libraries do not really feature. Len, Ayo and Richard are three highly respected figures in the British crime writing community, and although I've never managed to attend the Heffers event because of day job commitments, when I was approached quite some time ago with a view to contributing a new story, I was more than happy to come up with an idea.

When time passed with no sign of the book appearing, however, I rewrote my story, and the revised version, called  "Acknowledgments", happily for me, won the CWA Margery Allingham Prize. Then, at a time when I was unsure whether the anthology would come into being, Ostara - an admirable imprint - stepped in. They took over publication, and of course I had to write something fresh. The result was "Lucky Liam", which was inspired by my trip to the North East, and Hartlepool in particular, earlier this year. I'm delighted to see it in print, and my warmest congratulations go to Len, Ayo and Richard. Suffice to say that I suspect they now share my view that producing anthologies is trickier and more time-consuming than it may seem!

The sub-title of the book is "A literary showcase of crime stories from 20 masters of the genre", and I must say that the other authors include many of my favourites, including Peter Lovesey, Andrew Taylor and Simon Brett (all CWA Diamond Dagger winners) along with Christopher Fowler, Chris Ewan, Michelle Spring, Ann Cleeves, Kate Charles and...well the list goes on and on. I'm glad to be in such prestigious company. I've not yet read the other stories, but I'm very much looking forward to doing so.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Forgotten Book - Who Was Old Willy?

Today's forgotten book is Who Was Old Willy? Ah, they don't come up with titles like that any more! The author was Milward Kennedy, and the book came out in 1940. It's possibly Kennedy's least known mystery story, and an unusual feature is that it is clearly aimed at young readers. But it's short and snappy and I found it rather quaint and appealing.

Kennedy explains that the original concept was that the story would give rise to a competition for young detectives. The question they had to answer was, indeed, about the identity of the eponymous Old Willy. The competition was a joint effort, involving The Sunday Times (for which Kennedy had been a crime reviewer), the publishers and the Junior Book Club. The newspaper was planning to hold a Book Fair, but "Hitler interfered with our plans", as Kennedy put it. The Book Fair was postponed, and so was publication of the book. The competition never happened.

But the book offers a "challenge to the reader" of essentially the same type as so many Ellery Queen novels, as well as others by the likes of Rupert Penny and Anthony Berkeley, and Kennedy is generous enough to offer a hint to would-be sleuths to help them to figure things out. It's a game, then, and one that is pleasantly contrived.

Our hero is a young boy called Harry, who befriends a mysterious and eccentric old codger, who has shut himself off from the outside world and secluded himself in a house called Woodsomes. In due course, Harry finds Willy's dead body, but this isn't a murder story. The mystery is one of identity, because it turns out that Willy was not only rich, but has left an intriguing will. Kennedy supplies several clues, and manages to strike the right note for a young readership in constructing his story. But timing is important in so many areas of life, and the unlucky timing of this book's appearance meant that it made no lasting impression. I've never seen any discussion of it anywhere, but the first time I came across a copy for sale, I snapped it up, and I'm glad I did so. I think it supplies a delightful reminder of Kennedy's talent..

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Top Ten Favourite Books About Crime Fiction

Prompted by a question posed by Lisa Shevin on the very informative Golden Age Detection Facebook forum, I've put together a list of my favourite books about the crime genre. Of course, such lists should never be taken too seriously, especially when I'm responsible for them, since I'm perfectly capable of changing my mind in a matter of hours, or forgetting titles that really should be unforgettable.

I've limited myself in three ways. First, by including only one book per author. Second, by excluding any book to which I've contributed, which rules out quite a few that I'm very fond of. Third, by excluding books about Sherlock Holmes - so many exist that they deserve a list of their own. Even so, there are many excellent books that I have enjoyed and learned from, including quite a number by good friends, that aren't on the list. So, with all those caveats (but then, I am a lawyer...), here goes:

10. The Letters of Dorothy L Sayers, vol. one. Edited by the estimable Barbara Reynolds, and the first of five remarkable collections of Sayers' correspondence,this book provides great insight into the mind and life of an extraordinary writer.

9. Whodunit? ed. H.R.F. Keating. This is a likeable book, a mixture of author bios, essays by various hands, and much more besides. I referred to it constantly in the 80s and 90s and it introduced me to some terrific novels.

8. Murder for Pleasure by Howard Haycraft. An early study of the genre, which contains bags of information, but presents it in an extremely readable form (something that can't always be said of othewise excellent books.)

7. John Dickson Carr: the man who explained miracles, by Douglas G. Greene. I was first urged to read this many years ago by Peter Lovesey, and his recommendation was spot on. Excellent about Carr, and also about the Detection Club; Doug's research was most helpful when I was working on The Golden Age of Murder.

6. A Catalogue of Crime by Barzun and Taylor. This book contains pithy paragraphs about countless otherwise obscure novels, short stories and anthologies, and more besides. The opinions are sometimes maddening,and I still marvel that they thought Knutsford (more famous as the setting for Cranford than as the town of my birth) is in Ireland. But then, all books about the genre contain mistakes - a recent example is the "academic" book that describes Ronald Knox as an American. The real test of merit is whether the book enthuses the reader, and I love this one, for all its faults.

5. Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks by John Curran. John's detective work in deciphering the notebooks and putting them into context is quite riveting. No book gives a more revealing insight into the creation of classic detective novels (though there's a brilliant chapter in Barbara Reynolds' biography of Dorothy L. Sayers that is also gripping.).

4. The Collector's Guide to Detective Fiction by John Cooper and Barry Pike. This contains lots of information about (mostly) Golden Age writers, and is a real treasure trove, with fantastic illustrations of old jackets that I find irresistible. The authors are two British doyens of writing about the Golden Age whose insights I've long admired, and learned from..

3. Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. John Reilly. The first two voluminous editions of this book again taught me a great deal about many writers I'd never heard of before. There is some fascinating stuff here, and I devoured it in my younger days. Two later editions, with different editors, did include essays by me, but Reilly's version was in many ways definitive.

2. Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey. This is sheer fun - an account of pretty much every locked room/impossible crime story -with solutions in a separate section. I sometimes read extracts during library talks, and the audiences really enjoy the snippets. Masterly research, superbly and economically presented.

1. Bloody Murder by Julian Symons. This has to be my number one. As will be seen when The Golden Age of Murder is published, I challenge quite a few of Julian's opinions, and he is apt to be criticised by some Golden Age fans. Part of this is due to his trenchancy, more of it is due to the fact that he was covering a vast amount of material in a short span - you simply can't cover every base in a book that purports to cover even a fraction of the history of crime fiction, let alone the whole of it. But it is supremely readable and well-written, and I know many people, otherwise not really interested in books about the genre, who love it. Symons was writing for the 'typical' reader rather than the specialist (and that, to be truly successful, demands a higher level of accessibility and readability than writing for specialists) but he manages to cover a vast amount of ground with aplomb.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Writing about the Crime Genre

I'm fascinated not only by crime fiction, but also by books about the genre. This stems from my teens, when I first read Julian Symons' Bloody Murder, and learned a great deal about my favourite form of entertainment reading. One of the many strengths of the book is the pointers that Symons gives to titles worth reading (including many that took me a very long time to track down - one or two I've still never seen) and I continue to refer to it regularly. Another great merit of the book, by the way, is that Symons' prose is lean and highly readable.

The book prompted me to write a letter that was the closest I've ever come to sending a fan letter. Shortly after I left university, I had the temerity to drop Symons a line, and tell him how much I admired his book - but I questioned one or two things he'd said about Francis Iles' books, and suggested that he might have mentioned C.S. Forester's Payment Deserved, which somewhat anticipates Malice Aforethought, To my delight (and surprise) he responded with a charming and very thoughtful letter; he was well aware of Forester's book, and in fact he included it in a revised edition of Bloody Murder. He had a reputation in some quarters as being a rather grumpy chap, but I found him delightful, and did so all over again, when I  met him in person two or three times, many years later.He was clearly happy to debate opinions that conflicted with his own, as long as they were expressed in a courteous and measured way, and that is surely one of the marks of a civilised mind.

Since then, I've devoured scores and scores of books about the genre in all its aspects. On Thursday, I plan to write a post about ten favourites, but now let me just mention some new or forthcoming books by friends that are quite excellent, although like many other fine books, they are not in the list. I'll be covering B.J. Rahn's The World of Sherlock Holmes shortly, and I'm very much looking forward to an ebook reissue of Jessica Mann's Deadlier than the Male which will become available soon - details to follow.

And then there's Peter Lewis's Eric Ambler: a literary biography, a revised edition of which is now available from Endeavour Press as an ebook and via Createspace in print form..Peter contributed a guest blog about the book recently, and I was delighted by its new incarnation, almost a quarter of a century after it first earned acclaim. He makes the telling point right at the end that Ambler did so much to blur the boundaries between "the novel" and "the spy novel" or "the thriller". I would add that one thing that can be wearisome in books about the genre (if overdone) is extensive discussion of distinctions between, say, "thrillers" and "detective novels" or prolonged agonising about the precise definition of a "crime novel" or a "mystery". These are all useful terms,and they have their place, but they can also assume undue importance. Focus too much on such detail, and you risk losing sight of the big picture, or becoming uncertain of its true nature. I'm not sure, for instance, whether the great Julian's thesis that the detective novel had transformed into something superior, the crime novel, was really as helpful as it may have seemed when Bloody Murder first appeared. But to say that does not diminish his overall achievement. Just as the perfect novel can't be written, nor can the perfect book about crime fiction.

Last week, Curt Evans included on his blog an interesting piece which focused on writing about the Golden Age, and mentioned The Golden Age of Murder in very positive terms. As Curt anticipates, my views differ from those of Symons and Colin Watson (whose Snobbery With Violence is nevertheless a very good read) in numerous respects. Both men had a clear and credible point of view, but it led them to overlook some of the more interesting sub-texts in Golden Age fiction. Or at least, that's what I think, and that's what The Golden Age of Murder is -in part - about. In the run-up to publication, I'll discuss a number of aspects of my approach to writing the book. It was quite a departure for me, and one that has taken a great deal of work over a good many years. But now, thank goodness, the manuscript has been copy-edited (by another writer about popular culture, in fact) and best of all, Harper Collins have agreed to take on the task of preparing the index! .

Monday, 8 December 2014

Ringing the Changes

Anyone who has ever read and enjoyed Dorothy L. Sayers' famous detective novel The Nine Tailors is likely to be intrigued by campanology, and I'm certainly no exception. After her first few novels, Sayers set about testing the boundaries of the crime genre,and The Nine Tailors integrates plot, setting and theme with considerable subtlety. She was very good on background description, and ahead of her time in this respect, because the background is not superfluous, but relevant to the storyline.

I re-read the book when I was working on The Golden Age of Murder, and was impressed all over again with Sayers' skill. It really is a shame that she only wrote a couple of detective novels after that before turning her attention elsewhere. Had she maintained her zest for the form (and for writing about true crime) she would have left an even more remarkable legacy. Incidentally, I recently read the text of a talk by Professor B.J. Rahn about The Nine Tailors, and when it is published in due course, it will represent a worthy addition to scholarship concerning Sayers's splendid book. Speaking of which, if all goes to plan, I'll be discussing the subject of writing about the genre on this blog both tomorrow and on  Wednesday.

Despite Sayers having fired my interest, I have never actually tried my hand at bell-ringing -not until Saturday, that is. A visit to Cheadle Hulme, and Kate Ellis and her husband Roger was arranged to coincide with the local Victorian day. Our own village of Lymm has had a Dickensian Day in December for many years, and it's a very good way for a community to come together in the run-up to Christmas.

Now Kate and Roger are very experienced and accomplished bell-ringers, and they spent some time demonstrating the knack of bell-ringing to visitors, whilst attired suitably in Victorian dress. Of course, I had to have a go myself. Very enjoyable, too. As in so many areas of life, I didn't quite match up to Lord Peter Wimsey's instinctive prowess, but it is fascinating to hear the bells ring as one pulls on the rope. And I managed to avoid strangling myself with the rope, which apparently is an occupational hazard....

Friday, 5 December 2014

Forgotten Book - Birthday Party

The blog has been quiet for a few days as the death of my cousin has prompted a period of reflection on many things, not least the passage of time. Heather was someone I grew up with, and along with my other cousins, she was the dedicatee of The Frozen Shroud. The note she sent me in response is one I treasure, and to read it again now is poignant. She did a little writing herself, and I suspect that she found, as many of us do, that although writing can be challenging, it can also offer a degree of solace in difficult times.

My Forgotten Book for today was written by C.H.B. Kitchin, a talented novelist whose occasional detective novels have received well-merited praise. However, this particular book has certainly been forgotten. It never seems to be mentioned when Kitchin's crime fiction is discussed (which nowadays, admittedly, isn't very often.) It has recently been reprinted by Valancourt Books for the first time since its original appearance back in 1936. For me, the biggest mystery about Birthday Party is why it's been neglected until now, because I found it gripping.

To describe a novel as "a well-made book" is often a way of damning it with faint praise. But Birthday Party is very well-made, and that's a real strength.. It's a quiet story, and anyone seeking lots of melodramatic action should look elsewhere. But I found that the tension builds steadily, and I carried on reading until the end even when I had many other pressing things to do,because Kitchin had made me care about the characters, flawed though they are.

The story is told by four different people, and the shifting points of view are very well done. They are connected by Carlice Abbey - yes, this is a country house mystery, but with a difference. Isabel Carlice is a sharp-witted single woman who loves the Abbey garden, and continues to look after it after her brother dies in a mysterious gunroom accident - was it an accident, or (more likely) suicide? And if suicide, what was the motive? The dead man's widow, Dora, continues to live at the Abbey, while nursing a secret of her own. Her brother, Stephen, a failed novelist, decides to come to the Abbey to save himself from destitution. And meanwhile, the 21st birthday of young Ronnie is fast approaching - hence the title of the book. Ronnie is an idealistic Communist, and he has ideas of his own about what should happen when he inherits Carlice Abbey. A fifth character, a successful medical man, also plays a crucial part in the story, although he is not one of the narrators.

This story casts fascinating light on the period when it was written; Ronnie's political views were fashionable then, and people like the crime novelist Margaret Cole travelled to Russia, as Ronnie does just prior to his birthday, to marvel at the success Stalin was making of his post-revolution society. People worry in the book about an impending war,and there is a sense of doom which Kitchin conveys with many subtle touches. I like his deft way with words, as well as his ability to spring small surprises. He was a far better novelist than Margaret Cole, and, I suspect, much more perceptive, because much less opinionated and fixed in his views. This is an unusual and ironic crime novel which definitely deserves a wider readership.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Portrait of Alison - film review

Portrait of Alison is a 1956 film based on Francis Durbridge's tv serial of the previous year. In the US, the film was known as Postmark for Danger. The story was written at a time when Durbridge was at the peak of his powers, and of his fame, and the plot includes a host of the devices that one associates with Durbridge - above all, the seemingly commonplace, yet at the same time inexplicable and bizarre item that seems to connect mysterious and murderous events. In this case, the item is a postcard of a bottle of Chianti, in the hand of a woman.

A car crashes in Italy with fatal consequences. An artist working in London, Tim Forrester (Robert Beatty) is told that his brother was at the wheel, and a young woman passenger was killed with him. The bodies are so badly burned as to be unrecognisable, and you don't need to be Paul Temple (who doesn't actually feature in this story) to suspect that all may not be as it seems.

The plot thickens rapidly as Tim is asked by the father of the dead girl, Alison Ford, to paint a portrait of her from a photograph. The photo vanishes, as does Alison's dress, which the father had given to Tim, while the portrait is defaced. Tim discovers all this when he comes home one day - to find the body of his regular model, who happens to be wearing Alison's dress. What can it all mean?

The route to the solution is as twisty as usual with Durbridge. Portrait of Alison is typical of his best work, with a gripping (if unlikely) plot and limited emphasis on characterisation and setting. The performances of the lead actors are rather wooden, I'm afraid, but there is ample compensation in the supporting cast, which is full of notable British character actors of the Fifties and Sixties - the likes of Geoffrey Keen, Raymond Francis, Sam Kydd, Terence Alexander (later renowned as Charlie Hungerford in Bergerac), William Lucas and Allan Cuthbertson (once ubiquitous on the TV screen, and now perhaps best remembered for an episode of Fawlty Towers). Good light entertainment.