Friday, 31 January 2014

Forgotten Book - Information Received

I've mentioned E.R. Punshon several times in this blog. There's not much doubt he's a forgotten writer, and the first time I read a book by him,I wasn't especially sympathetic to his rediscovery. However, I knew that Dorothy L. Sayers, among others, rated him highly, and I felt I should give him another try. I've now read a number of his books, which were better than the first, and a kind friend recently lent me Information Reeeived, which really is very good indeed.

Information Received was the book that introduced Bobby Owen, who developed over the years into Punshon's most renowned series character. In his debut, he is a young constable, an Oxford graduate with a poor degree who, because of the economic slump, is not able to find a job other than at the lowest entry level in the police. But he's a keen and likeable guy, although interestingly he doesn't really "solve" the mystery here in the manner of a great detective.

The starting point is that a wealthy and unpleasant man decides to make substantial changes to his will. As with any character in a Golden Age detective novel, this is akin to signing his own death warrant.Within hours, he is found dead at home. Who has killed him? He has a daughter and step-daughter, and both women have keen suitors, while the cast of characters also includes a rascally solicitor (tut, tut) and a mysterious chap spotted near the scene of the crime.

There are some nice clues, especially involving theatre tickets, plus a number of very interesting plot complications. I was also struck by the nature of the social comment. Punshon was on the political left, and this comes across clearly. Anyone who tells you that Golden Age books were only written by a bunch of conservatives doesn't know what they are talking about. Sayers, whose politics were on the right, loved this book, although the American commentators Barzun and Taylor disliked it - I don't really know why. What I can say is that this is by far the best Punshon I've read to date, and I can recommend it.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Accuracny and Authenticity (and The History Boys)

The History Boys, a successful film of Alan Bennett's acclaimed play, is not a work of crime fiction. But I want to say a few words about it today, because I enjoyed it hugely, and also because I think Bennett, a skilled craftsman, demonstrates something about writing that authors, including me, can learn from.

The film tells the story of a group of eight boys at a single sex grammar school in north Yorkshire in 1983. They have done very well in their A Level exams, and as a result they stay on for an extra term the following year, in order to sit the entrance examinations for Oxford and Cambridge universities. The reason that the story is set in the early 80s, I suspect, is that it wouldn't fit very easily with the modern British educational system. There are fewer single sex and fewer grammar schools now (perhaps especially in the north of England) than there were, and the Oxford entrance exam no longer exists.

The story deals very entertainingly, and in the end very poignantly, with the relationship between the lads and their teachers, two of whom are gay. The cast is excellent, above all the teachers, who are played by three fine actors, the late (and marvellous) Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, and Stephen Campbell Moore. Clive Merrison is funny as the ambitious and annoying head teacher, and the script has plenty of great lines in Bennett's customary witty, mannered style.

The story "feels" authentic, which is the sign of high quality writing. And Bennett was a product of a northern state school who went to Oxford, although via a complicated route (he was originally accepted for Cambridge during the ear of national service, but changed his mind.) So he knows very well how such a background and education can be beneficial  in terms of social mobility.

But how accurate is The History Boys as a depiction of the world it creates? Well, I was a member of a small "third year Sixth form" group in a northern single sex grammar school just a few years before the events of The History Boys, and there's no doubt that Bennett uses a huge amount of artistic licence, not least because as far as I recall there was very little teaching, just a few hours per week - the point being that you couldn't really "teach" the Oxbridge entrance exams. As for the idea of a crammed curriculum (bizarrely even including P.E.), forget it.

So if my experience is typical, then The History Boys isn't accurate. But it doesn't matter, in my opinion. Authenticity isn't the same as precise accuracy, and for me, authenticity is what really counts in a work of fiction. I don't deny that careless inaccuracy about factual details can be damaging in a work of fiction, but really I think the problem only arises if the effect of the inaccuracy is to compromise that all-important sense of authenticity.

The late Robert Barnard used to tell a witty story about how he was praised for accuracy in his portrayal of backstage life in an opera company - when he had absolutely no knowledge of what that life was like in reality. The point was that because he loved opera, he could imagine a fictional world which may have differed greatly from the reality, but which nevertheless carried conviction. Similarly, the best legal mysteries create a believable world, even if legal life in reality is very different. I rather think (and hope!) the same is true when it comes to portraying police work. Authenticity is very, very important, but it's not the same as accuracy. But one thing I did learn at school and university is that there is room for all sorts of opinions, so I'll be very glad of comments from anyone who either agrees - or has reasons to disagree.

Seven - movie review

Seven, David Fincher's 1995 film, is one of the best serial killer films ever made. I first watched it on television a couple of years after its release, and although I was impressed by the famous and memorable final scene, it didn't make quite as much of an impact on me as it should have done. Probably I was distracted by other things - a reminder that reviews are not just about the subject of the review, but the mood of the reviewer at the time. Anyway, I've watched it again, more carefully, and thought it superb, even though I knew how it would end.

For those who haven't seen it, the story brings together, in a grim and un-named city, a young, aggressive cop and a wise partner who is on the point of retirement and escape from the city. This duo is played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Their performances are excellent and they work so well together. Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Spacey are two more superstars in the cast. There's also an appearance from Richard Roundtree.

The theme of the murders, is "the seven deadly sins". One thing I like about the superb screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker is that it doesn't offer a trite whodunit, but rather raises questions about what it is that makes us human and sane, and the nature of evil. The skill of the actors and of Fincher bring out these qualities more effectively than almost any other serial killer film I've seen. The only downside is that the success of Seven has led to countless attempts to borrow from it, and the films that have resulted have often been indifferent, and gruesome for the sake of it. Seven is gruesome, admittedly, and the final scene apparently caused the studio much angst. But the film would certainly have been poorer without it.

I've never written a serial killer novel, partly because I think so many stories of this kind seem derivative and lacking freshness. I'd only want to go down that road if I could come up with something that felt fresh in some way. In the meantime, whilst I give many serial killer film a miss, I'm really glad I had another look at Seven.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Lethal Alliance by Kate Clarke - review

At around the turn of the year, I was delighted to receive a copy of Kate Clarke's latest true crime book, Lethal Alliance. Like many a good book these days, it's published by a small press, Carrington Press. There isn't a biographical note, but Kate Clarke is a very experienced true crime specialist, and once co-wrote a book that was short-listed for the CWA's Gold Dagger for non-fiction.

Her subject is two distinct "lethal alliances", though as she emphasises in her introduction, the cases discussed bear no resemblance to modern cases such as Brady and Hindley, and Fred and Rose West. Here we are dealing with two nineteenth century cases. The first, set in Brighton, involved the fatal attraction that a doctor named Beard had for au attractive unmarried woman called Christana Edmunds. The second, set in London, concerned Sarah Gale's attachment to James Greenacre.

I was already familiar with, and very interested by, the Edmunds case. This is because it is referenced by two of the greatest Golden Age writers, Anthony Berkeley and John Dickson Carr. Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case draws on some material from the Edmunds story, while Carr's The Black Spectacles takes a case similar to that of Edmunds as the starting point for an unusual and intriguing mystery.

Lethal Alliance told me plenty that I didn't know previously about the Edmunds case. Her weird campaign of poisoning resulted in a trial where she was found (controversially, as Kate Clarke explains) to be insane. She spent the rest of her life in Broadmoor. It's a sad tale of delusion. The Gale-Greenacre case, dating from the 1830s, is an extraordinary reminder that there is nothing new about the dismemberment of luckless murder victims. Overall, if you are interested in real life cases with a historical dimension, I think you will find much of interest in  Lethal Alliance

The return of The Red Right Hand

The Red Right Hand is a remarkable American crime novel that I've mentioned fleetingly on this blog in the past. It was written by Joel Townsley Rogers, and the reaction of many modern readers may well be: "Joel Townsley who?" His name is not especially well known these days, and the main reason for this is that he wrote very few novels, although he was a prolific writer for pulp magazines. Of his novels, only The Red Right Hand earned lasting acclaim, and its fans include such terrific writers as Donald E. Westlake and Ed Gorman. But copies of even that book have proved quite hard to find in recent years.

Thanks to digital publishing, and the enterprise of an outfit called 280 Steps, that has changed. A new ebook version of The Red Right Hand is available - and it includes an introduction written by me. I was gratified when 280 Steps made contact and commissioned the introduction, not least because it gave me an excuse to read once again a book that I loved when I first encountered it.

I enjoyed it at least as much the second time around, even though I remembered vividly the twist in the story that helps to make it memorable. But this is much more than a book with a single gimmick. Rogers' prose is very appealing, and this story has often been justly described as "hallucinatory". Its weird, dream-like quality is enhanced by a compelling literary style. It's no surprise to learn that Rogers wrote poetry as well as prose.

Rogers was born in 1896,and lived until 1984. The Red Right Hand was published in 1945, and was based on a novella that he'd written for a magazine. I've never sought out his other work, but re-reading this book made me want to do so. I found 280 Steps excellent and highly professional to deal with, and I'm also tempted by a number of other titles on their list, which range from noir classics to non-fiction, notably three books written by Woody Haut. Definitely worth a look.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Forgotten Book - The Obituary Arrrives at Two O'Clock

Having enjoyed Shizuko Natsuki's The Third Lady a while back, I was tempted to sample her work again, and this led to my reading today's Forgotten Book - a title she produced back in 1983, and seems to have translated herself five years later as The Obituary Arrives at Two O'Clock. The title struck me as extremely intriguing, as I find stories focusing on obituaries rather fascinating, but I have to say that the title does not bear any relation to the book. Rather, the starting point is a ploy slightly reminsicent of the Wallace case, which I have discussed here several times recently.

Kosuke Okita is a youngish landscape gardener who is owed a lot of money by a rascally co-owner of a golf club. One night, he receives a mysterious telephone call from a woman in need of help, and this prompts him to go out on an abortive attempt to meet and help her. At about the same time, the man who has been cheating him is bludgeoned to death with a golf club. Kosuke has no alibi, and becomes the prime suspect.

After that opening, there is no similarity between the storyline and the Wallace case. Kosuke eventually goes on the run, and when he disappears, it seems that he has committed suicide. But is it possible he is still alive, and if so, what on earth is going on? Tension is maintained pretty well, and there's a rather grim explanation of the final mystery in the very last sentence of the book.

The excellent ingredients mean that there is much to enjoy in this book. The regular shifts in viewpoint mean you can never be quite sure where you are with events, and the effect is quite pleasing. Having said that, you have to suspend your disbelief on several occasions, and I felt that there were not enough suspects, and a bit too much time was devoted to discussing the intricacies of the Japanese golf club business. Not a masterpiece, but a good book, and further evidence of Natsuki's storytelling ability, as well as another reminder of the dangers associated with believing everything people tell you on the telephone.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

From Hell- film review

From Hell is a 2001 movie about Jack the Ripper which is based on a graphic novel and stars Johnny Depp. I'd heard good things about it long before I finally caught up with it. And I found it very watchable entertainment, in the lurid and not-to-be-taken-too-seriously style of its television descendant, Ripper Street. As you might expect, the storyline plays fast and loose with the facts, but is pacy and vivid, if over-long.

Johnny Depp plays the part of Inspector Abberline, transforming the stolid chap of real life into a charismatic but troubled rake who falls in love with a prostitute, played by Heather Graham. Depp and Graham are very appealing actors, and so are some of the excellent supporting cast members - notably the late Ian Richardson, Robbie Coltrane, Jason Flemyng and Ian Holm. I thought one of the other prostitute-victims looked familiar - and she proved to be Estelle Skomik, best remembered as Nicole in the legendary Renault Clio advertisements of years ago...

The plot is a mish-mash of various conspiracy theories about the Ripper killings, with Royalty, the medical profession and the freemasons all getting a drubbing. I'm fairly sure that the list of candidates suspected of being Jack the Ripper will continue to lengthen. One suspect is even supposed to be buried in Lymm Church's graveyard, which I can see from where I'm sitting as I type this post. Then, of course, there was James Maybrick, supposed author of the famous Jack the Ripper diary. And so on.

The gruesome nature of the Ripper killings mean that they will always attract attention, some of it serious, some of it prurient. Anyone interested in real life crime is almost certain to have some interest in the Ripper case, although I find some domestic cases - Wallace, Buck Ruxton, Crippen, Armstrong and so on - in many ways more fascinating. But I'm glad I watched From Hell. It doesn't add to our understanding of the case in any way, but the stellar quality of  the cast is more than adequate compensation.

Drive - film review

Drive is an American gangster thriller from 2011, but in describing it as a "gangster thriller" (or, I might have said, a "heist thriller") I'm failing to convey the fact that this is a film of power and subtle emotion, all the better because it is under-stated from start to finish. I really enjoyed and admired it. Much as I'm keen on whodunits and classic mysteries, my enthusiasm for crime fiction has a lot to do with the variety that the genre offers. This film is nothing like Dorothy L. Sayers or Jonathan Creek, say, but it's perfectly possible to admire DLS and JC and also to love films as good as Drive.

A great deal of the strength of the film probably comes from the source material, a book of the same name (which I haven't read) by James Sallis. Sallis is an acclaimed poet, and there is something lyrical about this story of a young man who works in a garage in Los Angleles and works part-time both as a movie stunt driver and as a getway driver for robbers.

Ryan Gosling plays the Driver, and the excellent Carey Mulligan is his neighbour in a rather miserable block of flats. She has a young son, and her husband is away in prison. A platonic relationship develops between them and when the husband returns home, he and the Driver are drawn together by their mutual devotion to Carey Mulligan. When she is threatened by gangsters, the Driver determines to protect her and her son, whatever the cost.

Drive is a violent movie, but in my opinion, the violence is not at all gratuitous - something that cannot be said of a great many violent crime thrillers. We do care about the characters, and that's what sets this film apart. The story is strong, and the car chase scenes well done, but above all it is the relationship and chemistry between Gosling's character and Mulligan's that makes Drive a runaway success.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves - review

Harbour Street is the latest book written by Ann Cleeves and featuring DI Vera Stanhope. It's just been published, and one of my Christmas treats was to be given the opportunity to read a review copy. I've been a fan of Vera since her first appearance in The Crow Trap. In fact, I'd like to think that I was ahead of the crowd in recognising her tremendous potential as a character. Suffice to say that, since her debut, she's developed into one of the most interesting detectives in modern British crime fiction, and her appeal has been enhanced by the successful television series with Vera played by that fine actor Brenda Blethyn. I gather that a television adaptation of this book will reach our screens before too long.

The story is set in the run-up to Christmas, and gains from the seasonal backdrop. Newcastle is busy and Vera's sidekick, Joe Ashworth, and his daughter Jessie take a trip on the Metro after a choral performance in the Cathedral. Jessie screams when she discovers the body of an elderly woman, who proves to be Margaret Krukowski. Train-related crime stories have been popular for rather more than a century. But this is a very different kind of mystery from the cases of the railway detectives created by such diverse writers as Victor L. Whitechurch, Andrew Martin and Edward Marston, and certainly from Murder on the Orient Express.

Margaret seems to have been a thoroughly decent woman, although it appears that there is some mystery about her past, and also about her long-ago marriage. Why would anyone want to kill such a pleasant person? This is the sort of question that appeals to me as a writer, as well as a reader. I did not, however, correctly identify the culprit. Although this is a very different book from The Glass Room, which offered a sort of homage to the Golden Age (and which Ann turned into an excellent murder mystery event that I've seen a couple of times), there are a number of ingredients that will please fans of traditional detective fiction, including questions posed by the dead woman's will, and a puzzle hidden in the past

Ann Cleeves is a friend of mine,and it is only natural for me to enjoy her books. But I am confident that her many fans will like this one. It's a neatly crafted piece of work, and a reminder that the great success that Ann has enjoyed in recent years, both with these books and the Shetland novels starring another likeable cop, Jimmy Perez, is well deserved.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Miss Marple - Nemesis (1987)- ITV review

Nemesis was one of Agatha Christie's last books, and by common consent it falls some way short of being a masterpiece. Yet, such is the power of the Christie brand that it has twice been adapted for television. I missed both of the original screenings, including the Geraldine McEwan version (and may not have been a great loss , I don't know) but I've now caught up - very, very belatedly - with the 1987 version starring the marvellous Joan Hickson as Jane Marple.

The screenplay was written by T.R. Bowen, a screenwriter very experienced in adapting Christie. Bowen avoids the mistake of making changes just for the sake of them. He tweaks the story a bit, introducing a god-son of Marple who acts as a sort of Dr Watson, but the advantage of adapting a story that is by no means a classic is that it's possible to improve on some of the weaker elements, and this Bowen does.

The premise of the story is rather odd, in that a dead millionaire sends Miss Marple on a coach tour, visiting historic houses and gardens and hoping that along the way she will find out whether or not his son really was a murderer. The son's girlfriend was murdered, and he was the prime suspect, but never tried. The plot involves a rather unlikely mistaken identity and a motive with a suppressed sexual element. Not classic Christie, then, but Bowen turns it into something very watchable.

What struck me, not for the first time with the Hickson series, was the excellence of the cast. John Horsley, a professor here, was the lecherous and inept doctor in The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin. Anna Cropper, a charismatic actor who was once married to William Roache (alias Ken Barlow), is among the suspects. And Peter Copley, once a constant presence in British television shows, made the most of a small part as a vague cleric.

Finally, regular readers will have noticed that I've deviated lately from my usual pattern of blogs on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and that I've been slightly more active. This is partly due to the number of good TV shows that I've seen lately and on which I wanted to say a few words. In 2014, I'm planning to producee three posts most weeks,but occasionally more. I'm back on Monday -with a review of the new Ann Cleeves novel, Harbour Street.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Forgotten Book - Suspicous Circumstances

My Forgotten Book for today is one of the last novels to appear under the famous pen-name of Patrick Quentin. Suspicious Circumstances, written by Hugh Wheeler, was published in 1957. At this time, I suspect Wheeler was pursuing his keen interest in showbiz which eventually led to his writing with the legendary Stephen Sondheim - Wheeler wrote the book of that wonderful musical "A Little Night Music", for instance, and was involved with "Cabaret", although sources differ as to the extent of that involvement.

So Wheeler certainly loved the showbiz world, and this shines through in the novel. The story is told by Nickie, a 19 year old young man who is devoted to his mother, once a famous actress. While he is away in France, enjoying himself with a woman called Monique, he receives an urgent summons from her to return home. Is this connected with the recent death of his mother's rival, Norma Delanay, by any chance? The answer proves to be yes.

It seems that Norma died accidentally, but Nickie is not so sure, and neither are the police. His mother, along with a number of other people in her circle, may have been at or close to the place where the accident happened. Suspicion switches around from one person to another. Whom can Nickie trust? This question of trust, suspicion and betrayal is eternally fascinating and it formed the core of my own second novel, Suspicious Minds.

Unfortunately, despite the potential of the showbiz setting, I found myself unable to warm to Nickie, his mother or anyone else in the book, and unable to care how Norma met her end. It seems to me that Wheeler was losing interest in the crime novel when he wrote this book. It has a perfunctory feel, very different from the energy that drives most of his fiction. I'm sorry to say so, but this is by far the worst Quentin I've read. But everyone has an off-day, and the other Quentins I've read are pacy and enjoyable. Please don't let my disappointment with one particular book put you off Quentin"

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Sherlock Holmes: The Many Faces of a Master Detective - BBC Timeshift documentary review

Sherlock Holmes: The Many Faces of a Master Detective proved to be a very informative and enjoyable documentary. One unexpected pleasure from my perspective was to discover, as the credits rolled, the identity of the narrator of the programme. He was an elderly man with a very distinctive vocal style, and I wondered who it might be. I didn't guess right - it proved to be Peter Wyngarde, a truly charismatic actor who starred both in that superb film The Innocents and, in his most famous role, as Jason King in Department S. It was good to hear him again. It isn't often that an unseen narrator comes close to stealing the show, especially when it's a good show.

The programme traced the portrayal of Holmes on screen, in television and film, and this provided an excellent excuse for a lot of fun - including amusing chat about the mask worn by the dog who featured as the eponymous The Hound of the Baskervilles in the Hammer Film version of the story. Among the contributors was Mark Gatiss, whose enthusiasm for Sherlock came over very clearly. He has real insight into popular culture, ranging from ghost stories and sci-fi to the great consulting detective.

I've been a Holmes fan since I was a young boy, when I came across the Basil Rathbone films and the Douglas Wilmer TV series at much the same time. The point was made by one contributor that our favouirte Holmes tends to be the one we encountered in youth, and I certainly rate Rathbone and the less renonwned Wilmer very highly, but Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch are in their different ways also very good. Some would vote for Peter Cushing, a good actor but to my mind a notch below the top four. It was, by the way, great to see another screen veteran, Douglas Wilmer, talking very entertainingly here about his series in the Sixties.

Yet there's so much Holmes stuff out there that I realised I've missed quite a few good things over the years, including Billy Wilder's film starring Robert Stephens. Must catch up on that before too long. The mark of a good documentary is perhaps whether it makes you want to find out more about the subject, and I was delighted that this programme made it clear that there's still a lot more Holmesiana that I have yet to discover.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Death in Paradise - series three - BBC TV review

Death in Paradise returned to our screens tonight as this light-hearted BBC TV cop show began its third series. More than two years ago, I reviewed the first episode of series one and gave it a cautious welcome. I watched most of the episodes of that series, and found the plots enjoyable, but I continued to find some of the humour forced. I gave series two a miss, but a number of friends told me they found the show a refreshing change from Scandinavian serial killers, and so I decided to take a look at the new series.

Because I'd not kept up with news about the show, I was completely unaware that Ben Miller was being written out as the British detective who bumbles around a lovely Caribbean island solving apparently impossible crimes. So when he turned up at a reunion of some of his chums from student days, and was stabbed to death with an ice pick before the credits rolled, I was slightly taken aback.

I soon got over my sense of loss, mind you. Miller was replaced by another bumbling but clever British cop, played by Kris Marshall. Marshall's an engaging actor,and is well equipped for the light comedy (still sometimes a bit forced, it seems to me) that is one of the ingredients of the show. Sara Martins continues to provide stunning support as the detective sergeant, and the excellent Don Warrington, who was so good in Rising Damp many years ago, plays the senior officer with his customary suavity.

Death in Paradise is a very popular show, and the high ratings demonstrate the appetite of viewers for classic whodunits, brought up to date. Here, the clues were so generously supplied that it was easy to figure out the culprit, but it's decent light entertainment, perhaps a notch or two ahead of Father Brown. I still don't regard it as a must-watch, or as in the same class as Jonathan Creek, which was funnier and cleverer, but I'm glad that it this has done well enough to give us another glimpse of the sun in the depths of winter..

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Sherlock: His Last Vow - BBC TV review

Sherlock's third series has just come to an end with His Last Vow, but those (like me) who fear withdrawal symptoms will be cheered by news that series four and five are already on the drawing board. This particular episode, despite the title, which alludes to "His Last Bow", was mainly based on "Charles Augustus Milverton". If my hazy memory is correct, the Milverton story was the first of the Douglas Wilmer versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories that I saw on TV as a small boy back in the Sixties.

Milverton was the king of blackmailers,and his modern equivalent is newspaper magnate Charles Augustus Magnussen, played by Lars Mikkelsen - a nice touch, this, combining Nordic noir with Baker Street. Lindsay Duncan, an actor who alwasy seems slightly mysterious (in a good way, I hasten to add), was his glamorous victim, Lady Smallwood. Steven Moffat's script began brilliantly, and I loved Mycroft's complaint that Sherlock's latest escapade with cocaine wasn't the first time that his substance abuse had wreaked havoc with his parents' line-dancing.

I did, though, feel that the story faltered after Sherlock was shot. Whilst I've really enjoyed this series, evidently some have been disappointed, and for me, the stories slip when the writer(s) go overboard on the sentimentality. We had some of that in this episode, and it is reminscent of the weaker parts of Doctor Who. Perhaps if the episodes were shorter, this kind of padding could be done away with in both these great shows.

All the same, I do love the clever and witty touches that abound in Sherlock. So I was intrigued to read today that a legal challenge has reportedly been launched by Conan Doyle's heir against the use of the Sherlock Holmes character in this way. Almost all of the original stories are now out of copyright, although the position has, I gather, been complicated by trade marks that have been registered.

There's a very interesting - and I think socially important - debate to be had as to who can and should be able to use fictional characters long after the death of the original creator. One argument is that the creations are property passed down to heirs, who are entitled to the benefit of them. Some say that, just as it's reasonable to remain entitled to,say, a house inherited from one's great-grandfather, so it is only fair to be allowed to inherit and profit from the intellectual property created by one's ancestors. As a creator myself, I don't dismiss these arguments out of hand by any means, and I'm certainly not in favour of deliberately nicking the intellectual property of the living. But there is also a very powerful argument that copyright lasts long enough, and that attempts to expand upon the substantial protection it already gives when the copyright period has elapsed are not in the wider public interest, and should be discouraged. Any views, on either side of the debate, would be of interest to me. So - what do you think?

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Bletchley Circle - ITV review

The Bletchley Circle, created and written by Guy Burt, earned acclaim on its first appearance in the schedules. I missed the whole of the first series, but have just caught up with episode one of series two. Was the praise justified? On the evidence so far, I think it was. This was a good period crime show, perhaps not of the highest calibre, but certainly very watchable.

The premise is a pleasing one. A group of women who were codebreakers at Bletchley Park during the war find themselves yearning for excitement in the austere monochrome Fifties. This story had its roots in a relationship that had flourished at Bletchley. A female codebreaker fell for a male colleague (played by Paul McGann). Years later, he is found murdered, and she is at the scene and the prime suspect. She refuses to defend herself and is tried for the crime and convicted. Even facing the death penalty, she remains silent.

Yet one of her former colleagues struggles to believe in her guilt and enlists the other women in a detective exercise that has the added factor of a race against time. Another suspect, a young girl, emerges, and by the end of this episode it seemed that a conspiracy is in play.

It was a clever idea to build on the legendary activities at Bletchley in this way, and to focus a storyline on a group of talented and determined women (with Anna Maxwell Martin, fresh from Death Comes to Pemberley,,prominent) rather than men. The Fifties setting also seems to me to be well done. Burt is a good story-teller (I gather he published his first novel at the age of 19 - wow!) and this is solid entertainment.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Forgotten Book - A Dagger in Fleet Street

My Forgotten Book for today is R.C. Woodthorpe's second novel, A Dagger in Fleet Street, first published in 1934, and applauded at the time, but now neglected and very difficult to find. In fact, I owe my copy to a kind person who supplied it to me when all other attempts came to nothing. And, as usual with Woodthope, the book boasts a number of attractive features.

This is, like Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, a workplace mystery. Woodthorpe had set his debut novel, The Public School Murder in a fictional version of the place where he used to teach. He moved from education to journalism with the Daily Herald, which in the novel becomes the Daily Hope. And Woodthorpe's knowledge of newspaper life makes his portrayal of it more powerful and authentic than Christopher St John Sprigg's entertaining Fatality in Fleet Street, published at much the same time.

Woodthorpe is good not only at describing the nature of journalistic life, but also at capturing the uncertainty faced by working people in the aftermath of the Slump. No job was safe, and one character says, "Thank God for the National Union of Journalists." That isn't the sort of sentiment that is generally associated with Golden Age detective fiction is it? An illustration, I suggest, of how the Golden Age is frequently misunderstood. Woodthorpe's writing regularly reflected his political views. The same woman turns out to be a communist; she is portrayed positively throughout, though she is smart enough not to reveal her political views to the newspaper's proprietor, or the acting editor, who is a "petty Mussolini," and who finishes up with the titular dagger in his throat.

Woodthorpe supplies some very good lines, and sharp social comedy. The only snag is that he is obviously uninterested in his plot. He was a writer, I think, who used the detective form as a peg to hang his writing on, but he was not very good at constructing a mystery. The puzzle, involving a rather insipid and ridiculous campaign by the newspaper against a pretty young woman, is third rate at best. But I'm really glad I read th book, because it gave me an insight, albeit quite light-hearted, into life in Fleet Street at a fascinating time of our history.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Father Brown - BBC TV review (second series)

Father Brown is back. The daytime television update of G.K.Chesterton's stories featuring the little priest who is one of fiction's great detectives has returned for a second series. The first series provoked very mixed reactions. When I wrote this blog post about the show, it attracted a great many comments and also some interesting emails. In fact I received one only the other day from the widow of someone who was involved with the 70s version of the Father Brown stories starring Kenneth More.

The fact that a blog post about a relatively obscure show can prompt such discussion, some of it long after the post originally appeared, never ceases to fascinate me. In fact, that particular post is, to this day, one of the ten most visited posts to have appeared on this blog; quite notable, given that there have been about one thousand eight hundred of them.

Mark Williams returned as a Fifties version of Father Brown in an episode, The Ghost in the Machine, which was not based on one of the original stories. The mixture is very much as before - picturesque settings, multiple suspects and a sort of winsome low-budget charm. The result will again set purists' teeth on edge, but I continue to find this show a sort of guilty pleasure.

I don't care for the term 'cosy' when it is applied to detective fiction. It's often applied to books that are far from cosy. But even I must admit that there is a cosinesss about Father Brown which is part of its appeal. A good watch if you are suffering from poor health, I imagine. Undemanding but light, entertaining fare. The fact that a second series has been commissioned suggests to me that plenty of viewers enjoy it. We're not talking cutting edge crime fiction here, and the connection with Chesterton's original is (and I regret this) remote. But there's room in the world for shows like Father Brown, as well as for more ambitious projects such as Broadchurch.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Gravity - film review

Like ghost stories and horror fiction, sci-fi is one of the genres I enjoy dipping into from time to time. I have published one futuristic short story, for an anthology co-edited by Maxim Jakubowski, but I certainly wouldn't describe myself as a sci-fi expert. But I was recommended to watch the new Sandra Bullock film Gravity, and I'm very glad I did.

The first thing to say about this movie is that it's the first I've ever watched in the cinema with 3D glasses, and I don't think there' s any doubt that this film, more than any other I know, benefits from being watched in 3D. The visual effects are absolutely stunning - the debris flying through space, for instance, seems to be heading right for the audience. This is not just a gimmick - it's very involving.

Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a scientist with an unhappy past, who is at work out in space with an affable colleague played by George Clooney. All is going well until news comes from Houston of an accident in space that may complicate life for the astronauts. So it proves. Soon Bullock and Clooney are the only survivors of the mission, and face a desperate race against time if they are to survive.

Sandra Bullock has a very engaging personality, but more than that, she is a terrific actor, and I doubt if she's ever performed better than in this role, which must have been very demanding. I was expecting the action in space to be inter-cut with scenes in Houston as the tension mounts. Apparently, the studio expected this too, but director Alfonso Cuaron resisted the pressure. This was an excellent judgment - the result is a very strong piece of work that benefits (as so many films, like books, do benefit) from being fairly short. I very much enjoyed Gravity. Watch it in the cinema, though, if you possibly can.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Sherlock: The Sign of Three - BBC 1 TV review

Sherlock returned in double-quick time tonight with another nicely titled episode, The Sign of Three,which saw Watson (Martin Freeman) marry Mary Morstan (his real life partner, Amanda Abbington). Much as I've enjoyed previous episodes in the series, I think this is the one I've relished most. It was crammed with good things, and above all, it was great fun. That matters, because the central point about Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories is that they were great fun, and all the best detective fiction (whatever its other virtues may be) is highly entertaining..

I love the way the writers take aspects both of the Conan Doyle stories, and detective fiction from the Golden Age, and refresh them, cleverly and wittily. Tonight, for instance, we had a "locked room" mystery, countless neat deductions, an idea borrowed from Agatha Christie (a murder committed by way of rehearsal) and a plot line founded on Dorothy L. Sayers' theory that Watson's middle name was Hamish. Great stuff.

Mark Lawson wrote a fascinating piece in The Guardian the other day, ruminating on the festive season episodes of Doctor Who and Sherlock, from the prolific and talented Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and the way that fan speculation (on blogs, for instance) seems to have influenced the writing. Like me, Lawson admires their achievements, but suggested that one risk of the writers' approach is that they cater increasingly for the more diehard series fans, rather than the typical viewer. His point is well-argued, but I think it is more persuasive in the case of Doctor Who than Sherlock. It seems to me that detective fiction tends to be more structured than sci-fi, and tends by its nature to impose rather more discipline on the writer.Much as I enjoy Doctor Who, I feel sometimes that the stories tip over into self-referential self-indulgence (and this was my feeling about the Christmas special), whereas in Sherlock, the self-indulgence which is undoubtedly present does not get in the way of the story.

Part of the cleverness of The Empty Hearse lay in the multiple solutions to the mystery of Sherlock's survival, and this device was not just a nod to fan obsessions but also, and more significantly, to the Golden Age tradition of multiple ingenious solutions to a given mystery. Anthony Berkeley was the master when it came to multiple solutions, but Agatha Christie, the excellent John Dickson Carr and others (including, in one wonderful post-modern take on the Golden Age story, "Cameron McCabe") also played games with their mysteries to great effect. Other than Jonathan Creek, I can think of no television show which has played games with the genre so often and so well as Sherlock.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Thirteenth Tale - BBC TV review

The Thirteenth Tale, a BBC adaptation of a best-seller by Diane Setterfield (which I haven't read) proved to be one of the stand-out dramas of the festive season. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, lead roles played by Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Coleman - what could possibly go wrong with this gothic tale? Not much. I really enjoyed it.

The opening was spookily (sorry, couldn't resist it0 reminiscent of the preamble to The Tractate Middoth on Christmas Day. A woman arrives at an impressive but rather forbidding country house by an enigmatic housekeeper, and is ushered into the presence of an elderly person who is close to death but has something important to say. But from that point, the two stories diverged. Redgrave plays a famous writer who wants Coleman to write her biography. Her story proves to be compelling, but deeply disturbing.

That story is (or seems to be - I'm trying to avoid spoilers here) about twins who grow up in a strange and almost surreal environment. Ronald Knox famously urged mystery writers to exercise restraint in the use of twins as a plot device, but The Thirteenth Tale is not really a detective story, although there is a puzzle to be solved. And more importantly, there is to my mind something deeply fascinating about twins. Perhaps it's because I'm an only child that I find the nature of the twin relationship especially mysterious, yet very intriguing. The experience of being a twin is so very different from my own experience. I've never written a story about twins, but one of these days, I'd like to have a go.

If I did, I'd be very happy if it was anything like as good as The Thirteenth Tale. The weird old houses, the slightly sinister family retainers, the entrancing gardens complete with topiary, and the frequent hints that something sexually illicit was going on, all these elements were mixed skilfully by Hampton to provide first rate entertainment. A gripping story, well told.

No Forgotten Book tomorrow, by the way. But there will be a post about a good and little known Golden Age novel in a week's time.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Sherlock: The Empty Hearse: BBC One TV review

Sherlock returned tonight with The Empty Hearse, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were in fine form, consolidating their joint reputation as one of the best, (and, many would argue, the very best), Holmes-Watson duos we have seen..The very title of this episode, The Empty Hearse, is a nice example of the wit that abounds in this series - in the canon, Holmes returns from the dead in a story called "The Empty House".

We were offered multiple solutions for Sherlock's escape from death - the kind of trickery that Anthony Berkeley, rather than Arthur Conan Doyle, delighted in. There was also, almost as a throwaway, an "impossible mystery" - how can a man disappear while travelling on a journey between two Tube stations? The ingenuity and playfulness of this episode were absolutely delightful. Mark Gatiss not only wrote the excellent script, but did his usual imperious job as Mycroft Holmes. All told, it made for a striking example of how detective fiction, old and new, can be both entertaining and enthralling when done well.

One of the highlights of the Crimefest week-end last May was a fascinating on-stage conversation led by Nev Fountain, with the creators of Sherlock, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and producer Sue Vertue. I've mentioned my admiration for Gatiss more than once on this blog, and what struck me about the conversation as a whole was the respect that Gatiss and his colleagues showed for Arthur Conan Doyle's creation.

I do not believe that Sherlock would have been half as successful if it had been written by people who did not have a genuine affection for the character and the stories. Despite updating the basic premise to the 21st century, they have stayed true, by and large, to the spirit of the originals, and when I met members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London in the autumn, it was clear that they approve of the show. Rightly so, because if you are going to reinvent fiction's greatest character, this is the way to do it.