Friday, 30 May 2014

Forgotten Book - The Shadow on the Downs

The Shadow on the Downs, my Forgotten Book for today, is the second novel that R.C. Woodthorpe wrote in quick succession about an acerbic retired schoolteacher called Miss Perks It first came out in 1935, although another four years passed before this fairly obscure yet very interesting writer produced another mystery. I'd rate it as one of his best, and it's a pity that it marked Miss Perks' swan song.

The setting is a village on the edge of the Sussex Downs, close to a resort called Helmstone (I presume this is based on Brighton). The peaceful rural life of the villagers is about to be disturbed by the construction of a motor race track. A councillor who supports the scheme is found dead in the porch of a church, and Miss Perks, who is staying with her nephew, becomes intrigued.

As always with Woodthorpe, the style is discursive. His main interest is in social comedy, and his portrayal of an intellectual tramp and a young man who wants to write detective fiction allow plenty of scope for humour that is pretty well done. He's also unsparing of corruption in local government and greedy enterpreneurs. Miss Perks' acerbic and often rude manner conceal a fierce intelligence and an unexpected human sympathy. However, she fails to avert one tragedy which is of a kind that one seldom encounters in detective novels of the period and which demonstrates that Woodthorpe's interests extended well beyond the puzzle of whodunit.

In fact, the detective work here is pretty good, better than you sometimes find with this author. Miss Perks does justice as she sees fit - rather as Holmes, Poirot and Roger Sheringham used to do. Despite all the digressions (I imagine Agatha Christie, whose books at the time were very tightly structured, must have despaired of Woodthorpe, though Dorothy L. Sayers was a huge fan) it's a novel I really enjoyed reading, and I hope some enterprising publisher will make it available again to a new set of readers.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Fatal Affairs by Kate Clarke

Fatal Affairs, written by true crime expert Kate Clarke, and recently published by Carrington Press, is in effect a companion volume to her earlier, enjoyable book Lethal Alliance,and demonstrates the same depth of research. Fashions ebb and flow in true crime, just as they do in crime fiction, and collections of essays are not as common as they were some years ago, when writers like Jonathan Goodman and the admirable and under-estimated Douglas Wynn produced some excellent examples. But it's often a very good way of showcasing material about real life crime.

This book focuses on 18th century crimes. It contains three essays, of which by far the longest concerns the most famous case, that of Mary Blandy, whose emotional attachment to Captain William Henry Cranstoun led her to poison her father, a crime for which she was hanged. Cranstoun fled to France, but he did not exactly "get away with it" as he died "in agony" not long afterwards. It's a good story, well told here.

The other two essays deal with cases that previously I wasn't familiar with at all. One concern Elizabeth Jeffries, who was linked with Mary Blandy in the sense that the pair corresponded whilst they were both in prison. The Jefrries case is an extraordinary (or perhaps all too ordinary?) example of sex abuse in the family long before the subject became a common element in crime ficton and discussions about real life cases. She was groomed and abused by her uncle, whom she murdered after falling for a young man called John Swan.

Katharine Nairn married young, and promptly fell for her hsuband's brother, Lieutenant Patrick Ogilvie. It goes without saying that this proved a disastrous mistake - especially for Patrick. The author describes the case as "extraordinary", and rightly so. This extensively researched and copiously illustrated book offers insight into a time very differenr from our own, and into relationships that were doom-laden in more ways than one. 

Monday, 26 May 2014

Libraries and the North East

I've just taken advantage of my reduced working week to take a trip to the North East to do a couple of library events. I had the chance to revisit two excellent libraries, at South Shields and Hartlepool, which I first visited about five years back, when I put on my Victorian murder mystery event. This time I presented a revised, and I like to think improved, version of my 1920s murder mystery event. Pauline Martin and Denise Sparrowhawk, two splendid librarians, promoted the events very well indeed and this resulted in very good audiences to enjoy the performances of the library staff whom Pauline and Denise had persuaded to take part. Of course, while I was in the area, I wanted to seize the chance to look around and find out more about the North East.

After the sunshine of Bristol during Crimefest, the weather was much wetter, and this killed off my idea of a boat trip to the Farne Islands, but I still had time to appreciate several nice places, some of which are renowned, some less well known. I've visited Durham several times before, but made my very first foray inside the Cathedral, which is truly magnificent.

I didn't see much of South Shields, but had time to look around Hartlepool. This isn't a town that springs to mind as a tourist trap, but it has benefited hugely from regeneration, and the sights include an excellent museum, a gun battery where the first casualty on British soil during the First World War was sustained, HMS Trincomalee, a historic and richly atmospheric cemetery by the sea (it's better than it sounds!) and a marina. There's even a statue of Andy Capp. Very friendly people abound. It's well worth a visit, and - since I can't recall Hartlepool featuring in any crime fiction; let me know of any books I've overlooked - I'm strongly tempted to use it as a setting for a short story I'm working on at the moment.

Finally, I drove through the neighbouring seaside resort of Seaton Carew. The downpour meant it was impracticable (perhaps also unfair!) to take a close look, but I was intrigued to see the home town of one of Britain's most famous criminals of recent years. Yes, this was the very place where John Darwin, aka "Canoe Man", effected his mysterious "disappearance" a few years back. A genuine crime scene...

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Quirke - BBC One - TV review

Quirke, which began with the first of three episodes tonight, has an impeccable pedigree. The original books about the character, an Irish forensic pathologist working in the Fifties, are written by Man Booker prize winner John Banville (using the name Benjamin Black.) The screenplay came from Andrew Davies, one of the most notable writers of television scripts of the past forty years. And the cast, led by Gabriel Byrne as Quirke, was very strong, and included Michael Gambon.

Even so, on a wet Bank Holiday Sunday, Quirke wasn't exactly feelgood viewing. In fact, it made noirish old Hinterland (the fourth and last episode of which was excellent, by the way) look like sun-soaked Death in Paradise. The depressing mood didn't just come from the story, a grim affair about child trafficking. It was reinforced by the background music and, most of all, by the relentlessly dark lighting. All very gloomy.

But was it good television? Well, the story was based on Christine Falls, the first Black book, and one I enjoyed reading. I'm not sure how easy it would have been to follow for anyone who hadn't read the book. The pace seemed rather uneven, with quite a lot of action near the end, when the scene shifted from Ireland to Boston in the US, after some rather sluggish and borderline dull periods. The quality of those involved in producing this show guaranteed that I paid attention, but I think I'll reserve judgment on its success for another week.

There's been a lot of debate about Banville's attitude to crime fiction. His comments have been interpreted as being rather disrespectful towards genre fiction, although you can argue that he's right to be sceptical about the very idea of genre. There was a famous debate which I witnessed at Harrogate a few years ago where he crossed swords with Reginald Hill, and didn't win too many friends in the audience. Reg wasn't impressed, either, I think it's fair to say. But I was lucky enough to be commissioned to interview Banville for Mystery Scene, a few years ago, and in the course of two long telephone conversations, I found him engaging (after a rather guarded start) and not at all dismissive of crime stories. Yes, his tastes run to Simenon and the Americans rather than Christie and Sayers (and Hill, I suppose) but this is simply a matter of personal preference. The fact is, he's a gifted writer, and crime fiction can only gain if the world's finest novelists try their hand at it. My interview with him, by the way, is to be found on my website, in the articles section here. Lots of other stuff there, incidentally!

Friday, 23 May 2014

Forgotten Book - Missing from their Homes

Missing from their Homes, my Forgotten Book from today, is a very interesting themed anthology that I've recently come across, and which dates from 1936. Unfortunately, it lacks any editorial material, but plainly the inspiration came from the announcements that the BBC used to make quite regularly about missing people. The BBC website suggests that such appeals are still sometimes made, though I can't recall ever having heard one. As an anthology theme, it's a good one (and, though I wasn't aware of this book at the time, over a decade ago I edited an anthology called Missing Persons - another reminder that there aren't as many original ideas out there as one would like to believe!)

Although the book is not specifically a crime fiction anthology, a number of the stories do fit neatly within the genre, while others are on its fringes.What is striking, however, is the quality of the contributors. So we have the young Graham Greene, with a very dark story indeed, as well as such notable and diverse writers as Arthur Machen, R.H. Mottram and H.E. Bates.

Two of my favourite stories were "The Gruesome Fit" by A.E. Coppard, and "Where is Mr Manetot?" by Phyllis Bentley. Coppard was a very accomplished short story writer, as his contribution demonstrates. Bentley was renowned as an author of Yorkshire family sagas such as Inheritance, but she dabbled in detective fiction for many years. Her story is unusual and appealing.

This is not a well-known anthology, and several of the stories in it seem never to have been reprinted. This is, I think, true of the contributions by that very interesting pair, E.M. Delafield, best known as a humorous writer and creator of the "Provincial Lady", and Anthony Berkeley. I was excited to see that the book contained a long story by Berkeley which I'd never come across elsewhere. However, having read "Publicity Heroine", I am afraid I can see why it has faded from view - it definitely falls short of his usual high standards. This was a disappointment, but overall I found the book extremely entertaining, and several of the stories were of real quality.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Writer's Life

When I started this blog, my aim was to share my love of crime fiction with others, and that remains the plan. Along the way, though, I've occasionally smuggled in a sub-text. I've always been fascinated by writers, and their lives, and I've read countless bios and autobiographies of authors, past and present. I thought that some readers might be interested to get a little insight into the working life of a mid-list author, someone who will never be the subject of a biography, but who loves writing as much as anyone could.

I have tried to show that, even if one is not a best-seller, or famous, the writing life can still provide a huge amount of pleasure, sometimes in unexpected ways (the fun of research trips, conventions and so on.) The fun side is central, not peripheral, and not simply self-indulgence (honest!)- job satisfaction is very, very important in any walk of life. I've also hoped that this might encourage one or two people who fancy the idea of writing, but are rather reticent about it. Not all of us can have our books on the telly, or the big screen (or piled high in WH Smiths, alas), but that's no reason not to give it a go. Better by far to write because you love writing than simply for the money. There's nothing wrong in travelling hopefully, even if one is not confident of the eventual destination.

The snag, of course, is that writing demands time and commitment, and morale can suffer, especially if a book is rejected or something else goes wrong - typically, when money is short. Most if not all writers have encountered set-backs, and I'm certainly no exception. It does sadden me when talented writers give up writing - and I've been around long enough to see it happen to quite a few good people. But I can understand it. When I was young, I dreamed of becoming a full-time writer. But once I achieved publication, and made friends with full-time writers, I realised that they often encounter pressures that can affect their work adversely, with unhappy and stressful results. This is why I've been reluctant to commit to writing full-time. I've also been incredibly lucky, in that I've had a good career as an employment lawyer, dealing with a fascinating subject and acting for clients, often for many years, whom I've liked a lot. Without the law, I'd not have done things like being given a personal behind the scenes tour of Wembley Stadium, sat in the directors' box for a Liverpool- Chelsea match played during a blizzard, taken part in meetings in Parliament, or spoken at a conference in beautiful Salzburg. The legal life hasn't only been a privilege, it has made a huge difference financially, and that in itself takes off some of the pressure from writing. The obvious drawback is that having a job, when one is very heavily committed to it, brings pressures and demands of its own, and they can interfere with one's writing and all the activities associated with writing..

At long last, though, I've made a big change. After serving thirty years as a partner in my firm (yep, you get less for murder...) I gave up my partnership three weeks ago. I work with a group of very nice people indeed, and as I still enjoy the law, I'm staying on as a consultant, working an average of a couple of days a week for a while to come. One massive benefit is that my commuting has been greatly reduced, and all that dead time sitting in hateful rush hour traffic jams on the Thelwall Viaduct or Runcorn Bridge can now be put to much better use. Regular readers of this blog will already know that, as part of my transition, I've been seeing a lot more of the world lately, which is lovely, and also helps to extend my range as a writer.

But will this make any fundamental difference to my writing career? That remains to be seen, but I must say that in recent times I've really felt liberated, and I'm optimistic and hopeful about the next year or two. I've certainly got the energy and enthusiasm to try to improve as a writer. All prizes are something of a lottery, I know, but winning the CWA Margery Allingham short story prize did feel like a sign that I'm doing the right thing at the right time, by focusing on the writing. As I continue my transition towards full-time writing, I'll continue to try to give a flavour of what it's like, in the hope that at least some of you will find these insights interesting and perhaps motivational. But the main focus will remain on general crime fiction and fact- and my next blog post will be another Forgotten Book...

Monday, 19 May 2014

Crimefest - and a magic moment...

Crimefest at Bristol, always so enjoyable, was especially memorable for me this year,as I was awarded the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham short story prize for my story "Acknowledgments". Moments of this kind don't come along very often in a writer's life - well, not in my writing life, anyway - and are something to cherish. The announcement was made by Julia Jones, Allingham's biographer, whom I'd had the pleasure of meeting for the first time the previous day. She kept the secret very well - I had no idea whatsoever that my name would be read out. Thanks to Ali Karim, as ever, for the photo above, as well as these, taken at a party to celebrate Severn House's 40 years of publishing. There's me with Jake Kerridge, the crime critic from The Daily Telegraph, a group shot, and Ali's daughter Sophia, Susan Moody, Felix Francis (son of Dick), me, bookseller Richard Reynolds, and Mike Stotter of Shots.

In the lead-up to the prize giving, I'd been absorbed by a wonderfully witty one-man show by Simon Brett, this year's CWA Diamond Dagger winner. On the subject of short stories, I was also delighted that the stories John Harvey and Cath Staincliffe contributed to Deadly Pleasures have been shortlisted for the CWA Dagger, to be announced at the end of June.

On Thursday, I again moderated the Forgotten Authors panel. Martin Walker, Jessica Mann, Stephen Booth and Christine Poulson shared their enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, a terrific range of writers, including Bruce Graeme, Mavis Doriel Hay, Dilwyn Rees and Harry Kemelman. With such a group, moderating was easy - the only challenge, as usual, was that the time whizzed by all too quickly, There is always so much more that we would like to say about our chosen authors.

On Saturday Kate Ellis moderated a panel about archaeology and history in which I took part, along with Tom Harper, and two writers I was meeting for the first time, Luca Veste, whose first novel has made a big hit, and Elly Griffiths, one of the most successful detectuve novelists to have emerged in recent years.Kate had never moderated before, but she did a fine job, and she later took part in the Mastermind, coming second only to Paul Johnston, who has won the quiz previously. I was given a lift to and from Bristol with Kate and her husband Roger and as always they were great company.

So too were many writers and readers with whom I enjoyed spending time over the week-end. One particular pleasure is catching up with fellow writers whom I haven't seen for a few years. This time, that list included Hilary Bonner, a former CWA chair who hasn't been working in the crime field for about a decade - it's great to see her back - Linda Regan and her husband, the actor Brian Murphy, Rob Gittins and Mick Herron, who was last year's CWA Gold Dagger winner. Mick reminded me that the last time we met, I won the CWA Short Story Dagger,so with that track record, I hope to run into him more often in future! There were also various interesting conversations about some good things to come. These include a guest blog by Susan Moody and, I hope, a couple of other talented writers,, a Golden Age project mooted by Mike Linane, a new CWA venture, and a possible new direction for the CWA anthology amongst other things.

The feelgood atmosphere of a convention like this is always the result of a vast amount of hard work by a small group of volunteers. Adrian, Donna, Myles, Liz and their team do a remarkable job. They must be absolutely exhausted now, but at least they have the satisfaction of knowing the whole event was another real success. And believe me, I'll remember it with pleasure for a long, long time.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Forgotten Book - The Great Orme Terror

Having spent many childhood holidays (and a good deal of time since) on the North Wales coast, I was delighted to learn of the existence of a book boasting the wonderful title The Great Orme Terror. For those unfamiliar with Llandudno and its environs, I should explain that the Great Orme is a rocky promontory close to that charming seaside resort. I had no idea that it had featured in a crime novel. But Garnett Radcliffe produced The Great Orme Terror in 1934, and thanks to that splendid publisher of Forgotten Books, Ramble House,I've now read it. Ramble House specialise in rescuing lost books, and as a result of their initiative, novels by the likes of Rupert Penny and Hake Talbot, both notable Golden Age writes, have become available again at modest cost. But Garnett Radcliffe, an Irish-born specialist in weird tales, was not your typical Golden Age writer.

So, where and how do I begin to describe this book? You could call it a guilty pleasure, I guess, though that's being rather kind. At around the same time that Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L. Sayers were doing their utmost to raise standards of sophistication in crime writing, Garnett Radcliffe was moving relentlessly in the opposite direction. Lurid thrills were his forte - nobody could describe The Great Orme Terror as sophisticated.

"Fiction in any form,has always intended to be realistic," according to Raymond Chandler in his famous essay The Simple Art of Murder. Had he read The Great Orme Terror, he might not have expressed himself so boldly. And yet Radcliffe does make plenty of references to places I know well - Mochdre, Llanrwst, Abergele, Rhos and so on - which suggests he thought he might make his story more credible if he rooted it in recognisable locations.

But really - what a story! It begins with the arrival in Wales of Dr Constandos from the Middle East, who brings remarkable news for the lovely young tennis player Mona and her admirer, the monocled Lord Basil Curlew about golden treasure in a Spanish galleon sunk just off the Great Orme. Mona reckons she has a moral right to the gold (I really wasn't convinced about that) and she and Lord Basil determine to find it. Unfortunately, various villains are also after the loot - and they include characters such as a nasty chap with green fingers known as The Lizard, the mysterious and bestial Gravenant, and assorted examples of Johnny Foreigner. The local cop, Superintendent Fibkin, really isn't much use at all, when faced with such devilish adversaries..

The bad guys have at their command, among other things, an army of weird death-robots, and mean to stop at nothing -certainly not torture and murder - to get their wicked way. Much of the drama unfolds (and here I, like Radcliffe I suspect, lost the plot completely) in a house at the foot of the Great Orme which rejoices in the name of Sperm. As Lord Basil memorably declares, "This uncertainty about Mona is like a damn toothache. I'm going to find her if I have to shoot up Sperm like a fellah in Wild West show. I'm - er- deuced fond of that kid." That might just be the most extraordinary piece of dialogue I've ever read. Words fail me, but they certainly didn't fail Garnett Radcliffe....

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Happy Valley (BBC One) and Hinterland (BBC 4) - TV reviews

Happy Valley, on BBC One, and Hinterland, on BBC Four, have now been running for three episodes each. Happy Valley is a single story, divided into hour-long episodes, whereas Hinterland features a different case over an hour and a half each week, but although the two shows are quite distinct, they have some things in common, most importantly good writing. From a personal point of view, I'm familiar with (and very keen on) the settings of both shows. Happy Valley is filmed around the Hebden Bridge area, the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire, close to the Pennines. Hinterland is set in and around Aberystwyth, and features places like Borth and Devil's Bridge as well as the beautiful, if often brooding, Welsh landscape.

Some critics have compared the bleak mood of Hinterland with that of the various Scandinavian noir shows that have proliferated in recent years, and it doesn't suffer by comparison.This is an unusual show, because the stories were shot first in Welsh and then in English, which must have been hard work for everyone involved, but the result is worthwhile. Hinterland may lack a Kenneth Branagh, but to my mind, mid-Wales is at least as enticing a backdrop for a crime series as anywhere in Scandinavia, and I'm surprised we've had to wait so long for it to be used to such good effect. I don't think the quality of the murder mystery plots is quite at the level of those of, say, the Wallander stories, and it's a shame that the interesting novels of Lindsey Ashford, who lives in Borth and has set her enjoyable books in that area, have not been adapted for television as yet. Overall, though, Hinterland is definitely worth watching.

Happy Valley unquestionably delivers on plot, and much else besides. The series is written by the gifted Sally Wainwright, and stars Sarah Lancashire as the thoroughly decent small town detective who finds herself mixed up in a kidnapping case in which she has a personal reason to hate the worst of the bad guys. There were some uncertainties of tone in the first episode, in which an accountant makes a spur of the moment decision to encourage a criminal acquaintance to kidnap the daughter of his boss. At that point, I wondered if we were in for a black comedy, or perhaps some form of criminal quasi-soap opera (an unfeasible number of the characters suffer from serious illness or other misfortunes.) But since then, the story has settled down and become a powerful thriller with plenty of twists in the plot and subtlety in the characterisation.

Sarah Lancashire may be best known as a former soap star, but she is a very good actor, and her performance in Happy Valley is terrific. I'm also impressed by the way the dynamics in the relationships between the kidnappers are shifting. There are a few light moments, but on the whole, the story is pretty dark, and certainly gripping. I am really eager to watch next week's instalment.

Monday, 12 May 2014

American Hustle and Saving Mr Banks - movie reviews

The in-flight movies to and from Washington on my recent trip to Malice Domestic included two recent, but very different, successes. As sometimes happens, my reactions to them was shaped to some extent by initial expectations. From the reviews, I expected American Hustle to be a brilliant crime comedy, and found it enjoyable but slightly over-rated, whereas I wasn't sure that Saving Mr Banks would be my spoonful of sugar, but in the end, I really loved it.

Both films are based on real events, but both take liberties with the facts in order to strengthen the story and entertainment value. American Hustle stars the reliable and versatile Christian Bale, along with Amy Adams, who is terrific in her role as a woman masquerading as a British aristocrat. They are confidence tricksters who become over-confident themselves, and there are plenty of enjoyable scenes and funny lines. l liked it, but to be honest, I soon forgot most of the detail of the story.

Saving Mr Banks is a story about a story - and about a story-teller. It recounts how P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) reluctantly goes to the States to see what sort of a mess Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is likely to make of his adaptation of Mary Poppins before giving up her rights in the story. Both Thompson and Hanks are quite brilliant, and the story gains from the flashbacks which explain much (eventually) about Travers' behaviour.

The conflict between Travers and Disney entertained me enormously. There are bound to be sacrifices made when a book is adapted for television or film, and all you can do as an author, I suspect, is just hope that you drop lucky. You certainly can't control your fate, and in real life (unlike the film, which sought to increase dramatic tension) Travers had already sold the rights in Mary Poppins before she met Disney. An odd woman, by all accounts, but I'd like to think that she was happy with the result. She certainly should have been - for most of us, to get that lucky remains a dream. A super, involving film, and I heartily recommend it..

Friday, 9 May 2014

Forgotten Book - Death on Heron's Mere

I'm not sure I really know what to make of Mary Fitt, the author of today's Forgotten Book, Death on Heron's Mere. She was a writer of genuine talent, with insight into character and an interest in the unorthodox as well as a formidable intellect - the Fitt name concealed the identity of a distinguished classicist, Kathleen Freeman. She was a member of the Detection Club, and to this day many of her books are keenly sought after by collectors,and first editions command steep prices. There's a lot to like - and yet...

When I've read her books, I've found that the excellence of the ingredients has sometimes not been matched by the quality of the whole novel. Death on Heron's Mere is a case in point. It's a country house murder story, complete with map of the mere, and it features the amiable if rather colourless Inspector Mallett (Cyril Hare's police detective had the same name but a stronger personality.) The book was published in 1941, and the plot involved industrial espionage to assist the Germans, yet on the whole the impact of war does not disturb the characters half as much as their prolonged family wranglings.

I felt the book got off to a poor start because a large number of characters were introduced very quickly, and never fully recovered. Fitt evidently took pains to ensure that the main people are more than ciphers included for the sake of the plot, but did not - in my opinion - do quite enough here to involve us with their emotions. As a result, I wasn't as concerned to find out who had shot Simon Gabb's son - and tried to make it look like suicide - as I should have been.

One of the interesting features of this book is the idea of the displaced gentry - the family which owned the big house has now been exiled, and there are newcomers at the Hall. The theme of the old ruling class falling on hard times crops up in several of Henry Wade's books, and also in Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly, but for me Wade and Christie do a better job of engaging the reader with the story while making their points about changes in society..This is an interesting book (it was lent to me by a Golden Age expert who rates it highly, and for whose judgment I have great respect) but overall, I found it disappointing. If you plan to give Mary Fitt a try, I wouldn't recommend starting here.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Writers at Malice

Whilst at Malice Domestic, I really enjoyed catching up with the Poirot Award winner, Tom Schantz of Rue Morgue Press (check out their excellent catalogue, which includes reprints of many otherwise hard-to-find mysteries of the past) and meeting his daughter Sarah, whose debut novel Fig has just been accepted by Simon & Schuster. It's a book I look forward to reading, and in the meantime her blog Magical Thinking gives an insight into her thoughts about life, storytelling - and daydreaming, which, as she says, is something that writers tend to do more than most.

Along with Tom, Steve Steinbock and Doug Greene (of Crippen & Landru publishers, and John Dickson Carr's biographer) form a trio of experts on Golden Age fiction whose knowledge is pretty much unrivalled. Steve organised a dinner last Friday evening which gave me the chance to catch up with actress turned writer Melodie Johnson Howe, whom I've mentioned before on this blog, and who among other things is one of EQMM's top short story writers. Our companions also included Doug, Charles and Caroline Todd (who won an Agatha the following evening, and who have contributed several short stories to anthologies I've edited), Nora McFarland and her mum, and another actress turned writer, Kathryn Leigh Scott.

Kathryn first earned fame appearing in a long running American TV show called Dark Shadows, which evidently retains a massive following, and her credits include films such as the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. She is not only the first former Playboy bunny I've ever met, but also perhaps the only one who later set up her own successful and long-established publishing business. Like Melodie, Kathryn is great company, and I'm looking forward to reading one of her books. The photo shows me with Melodie, Steve and Kathryn.

Art Taylor is another leading contributor to EQMM, and his excellent story "The Care and Feeding of House Plants" won an Agatha - it's available online via the EQMM site and I urge you to read it. I met him for the first time at a meal organised by Janet Hutchings of EQMM, which also gave me a chance to meet Josh Pachter, whose newsletter about short stories I subscribed to back in the 80s, and whose anthology Top Crime I remember devouring about the same time. Josh is now doing a lot of translating, and it was great to talk to him, his wife Laurie, Janet and Art over the best brunch I've had in ages.

As ever with crime conventions, time passes all too quickly, and it's impossible to do everything. Ingrid Willis, who was there promoting this autumn's Bouchercon at Long Beach has really tempted me to sign up for that too. We'll see. Les Blatt, Jeanne M. Dams, Hank Philippi Ryan,Hannah Dennison, and fellow Brits Frances Brody and Helen Smith were among a good many attendees to whom I chatted all too briefly. All in all, a memorable few days. If you are a fan of traditional mysteries who has never attended Malice Domestic, I can recommend it unreservedly. The convention is brilliantly organised, and the atmosphere as friendly as anyone could wish. I hope tol be back there very soon.

The Monogram Murders - the new Hercule Poirot novel

The Monogram Murders it is, then. One interesting feature of Malice Domestic 26 was the unveiling, by a representative from Agatha Christie's publishers Harper Collins, of an image of the cover of the new Hercule Poirot novel written by Sophie Hannah. It was a bit of a tease, since we were kept in suspense as to the title of the book - the publishers are rather cleverly building up interest in a publication that is bound to be a major event in the world of crime fiction.

I've mentioned before that, although I know this project dismays some Christie purists, I am very much looking forward to seeing what Sophie Hannah does with Poirot. From the first time I met her, which must be seven or eight years ago, I've been aware that she is a genuine fan of Christie, and this counts for a good deal. She is also, even more importantly, highly skilled at the construction of elaborate mystery puzzles - an essential part of the job specification if you are brave enough to tackle a new Poirot. For a keen plotsmith, however, it must be an irresistible challenge, and for me, this story will be an absolute must-read.

And now, finally, we know the title of Sophie's book - The Monogram Murders. Intriguing, I'd say. What do you think of it?

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Malice Domestic

I'm just back from Washington DC after a truly memorable trip to Malice Domestic 26. I've been to a good many conventions over the years, but very few have matched this one for sheer enjoyability. Yet the trip came out of the blue, after I was contacted by the organisers, and asked to write an essay for the convention brochure about Reginald Hill, whose memory was being honoured this time. Each year, Malice honours, n addition to a range of present day notables, a deceased writer who achieved great success in the field of the traditional mystery (personally, I prefer to dodge the word 'cozy', and I'm quite sure Reg would have felt the same.) Shortly after this, the Malice Board asked me if I would be willing to attend in order to talk about Reg. I didn't need to think twice before accepting.

Because Malice has now been running for more than a quarter of a century, and is always based in Washington DC (or, strictly speaking nowadays, the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bethesda, Maryland) it is very slickly organised indeed. Although the Board prides itself on the character and quirkiness of the convention, you don't arrange an event for about 600 people, and make sure it runs without a hitch, without undertaking a huge amount of work, and I must say that Verena Rose and her team managed to combine supreme efficiency with unfailing good humour and generosity. Verena and Rita Owens have compiled Not Everyone's Cup of Tea, a very entertaining history of the convention, which deservedly earned a shortlisting for an Agatha Award - the Awards banquet being one of the highlights of the week-end.

My itinerary was packed, although before the convention opened, I was able to get in a little sight-seeing in the sun-soaked city. I've attended Malice once before - I'm amazed to realise it was nine years ago - when Harry Keating was international guest of honour - and I joined forces with Ann Cleeves for a bus tour around the sights. That trip too was full of pleasures, and it's a sign of how Ann's career has flourished since then that she will be the international guest of honour at Malice in 2015.

After an initial dinner with the Malice Board, and a chance to meet other guests such as Margaret Maron, I was interviewed by Steve Steinbock about Reg Hill and had a chance to recount some of my favourite stories about him, as well as talking about his books. Then followed a panel with other guests, including Dorothy Cannell, whom I first met when we were in the same quiz team at Crimefest last year. The following day, Leslie Budewitz moderated a panel about legal mysteries - and a few hours later, Leslie was among the Agatha winners herself. On Sunday, I met up with Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and recorded a podcast of my story "No Flowers", which should be available on the EQMM website before long. EQMM continues to flourish, and has embraced the digital age with great success, something that I find truly gratifying,because it is a terrific magazine. This is my first involvement with a podcast and I was interested that Janet chose "No Flowers" for the recording, as it is a story which took my writing in a fresh direction.

As ever with crime conventions, there was a chance to catch up with old friends, such as Janet and Steve, and to meet some fascinating people for the first time. Tomorrow, I hope to say more about some of the splendid writers who made the convention such a huge success.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The CWA Margery Allingham short story prize.

I have been having a truly wonderful time at Malice Domestic, and will have some stories to tell about it shortly. In the meantime, I can't resist the temptation to mention that I was delighted to hear that a new story of mine is on the short list of ten for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham prize. Gratifying in itself, but I have to say that I am especially thrilled that a story by one Helena Edwards is also on the list...

Helena has not published any fiction as yet, but I have long hoped that one day she would, because she is a really talented writer, and this success is definitely well deserved.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Forgotten Book - Diabolic Candelabra

Diabolic Candelabra is surely one of the oddest titles of a Golden Age novel written by a leading author. This book was first published in 1941, and was the work of E.R. Punshon, a pillar of the Detection Club and one of Dorothy L. Sayers' favourite detective novelists. It certainly fair to call it a Forgotten Book, but I'm pleased to say that Ramble House (a truly commendable small press) have made affordable copies available again, while one or two glowing reviews of the book have appeared on the internet in recent times, with a particularly detailed and positive review from John Norris on his excellent blog Pretty Sinister Books.

This is another case for Punshon's policeman Bobby Owen, who is now an inspector, married to Olive, and working in the countryside rather than London, where he began his career in Information Received. As usual with Punshon, the storyline is discursive, and the mystery has a number of ingredients, several of them unusual. Punshon's characteristic wit is much in evidence, and I thought I detected a sly and subtle dig at Anthony Berkeley.

The story is set in the early days of the Second World War, and Punshon gives an interesting idea of the extent to which war did and did not affect rural England - despite all the anxiety, people at home still got on with their lives. The mystery of an appealing and unfamiliar flavouring for chocolate kick-starts the book - an odd beginning, perhaps, but somehow typical of Punshon's off-beat approach. The plot thickens rapidly, and various story-lines enmesh a strange hermit who lives in hovel in a wood, a strange young girl, an unpleasant doctor, one or two odd tradesman, and an aristocratic family whose heirlooks may or may not include works by El Greco and some valuable candle-sticks.

When murder is done, there are no fewer than twelve suspects, although I managed to spot the villain at a fairly early stage, partly because Punshon's over-elaborate story construction perhaps yields more clues than he intended. I always have mixed feelings about his books, because they invariably contain pleasing elements, and equally often seem (to me, but not to good judges including Sayers) rather self-indulgent. But he contrives a dramatic finale and one or two genuinely memorable passages. An interesting writer, certainly, who definitely does not deserve to be forgotten. If you haven't sampled him before, Diabolic Candelabra is not a bad place to start.