Friday, 29 May 2015

Forgotten Book - Nightmare Cottage

I'd never come across G.M.Wilson, let alone her novel Nightmare Cottage, before I read an extremely positive review of the story on John Norris' splendid blog. John is an excellent judge - he introduced me to another long-neglected author, Claude Houghton, amongst others - and I determined to track down the novel. I've finally managed to find and read a copy, and it's my Forgotten Book for today.

John gives a fine account of the story, and I won't attempt to compete with it,.Rather, I'll start by reflecting on the fact that the book's lack of renown probably has a great deal to do with the fact that it was originally published in the UK, in 1963, by Robert Hale, a company closely associated with the public library market. There tends to be a stereotype that Hale books are inferior, but anyone who makes that assumption is likely to miss out on some very good books Pamela Barrington, to whom I was introduced by Kacper, via a comment on this blog, is among the Hale authors who wrote some very enjoyable work.

Gertrude Mary Wilson was, so I learn from Allen J. Hubin's brilliant and indispensable bibliography of the genre, born in 1899, and her career as a crime novelist began in the Fifties, continuing into the Seventies. Throughout she was published by Hale, and her regular detective was Inspector Lowick, who features here in tandem with Miss Purdy, an appealing amateur sleuth. John, incidentally, mentions in a comment on his blog post that he in turn was tipped off about Wilson by a review from the late and much missed Bill Deeck on the hugely informative Mystery*File blog.

I enjoyed the book, and found the story to be constructed with skill. That said, I wasn't quite as enthusiastic as John, and it's not entirely easy to explain why I wasn't as gripped as I should have been as the plot complications unfolded. I suppose that for me the mystery lacked the intensity that I like, and which I find very often, for instance, in the allegedly genteel and cosy world of Christie and Sayers. But then, they were two superstars, and G.M. Wilson was undoubtedly a capable story-teller who doesn't deserve to be forgotten. I'm glad that John, and Bill, highlighted her work.   .

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Impact - movie review

I'm a fan of film noir, and some time ago, I treated myself to a box set of vintage films in that vein. But I have only got round to watching them now, and I decided to kick off my viewing with Impact, from 1949, a little-known movie with a screneplay co-written by Jay Dratler, who had previously worked on the script for that much more celebrated film, the excellent Laura.

Brian Donlevy plays Walter Williams, who is introduced to us as a dynamic young businessman,able to twist a board of grumpy directors around his little finger. But when he goes home to his wife Irene (Helen Williams) a different side to his character appears. He is a "softy", quite besotted with her. This being a film noir, however, you can bet that Irene, for all her protestations, is not equally crazy about him.

The early scenes are lacklustre in the extreme, but things liven up once Irene persuades doting Walter to give a lift to a young "cousin" who is, in fact, her lover,.Jim.  The plan is for Jim to drive Walter to a lonely spot on the edge of a cliff, kill him, and get away with murder. But Jim is not very bright, and things do not work out as he and Irene intended.

This is a decent piece of entertainment, and Walter finds himself trapped in a situation which just about validates the description of Impact as a film noir. Charles Coburn steals several scenes as a likeable cop. But the script is not as sharp as it could have been, and Walter's blind spot about Irene is rather hard to take. Worth watching, but a long way short of Laura . Then again, most films are.

Monday, 25 May 2015


The arrival of a new issue of CAD is always a cause for celebration, and I have just devoured issue 70 of Geoff Bradley's splendid and long-running magazine for crime fiction lovers. Once again, the contents range far and wide. If you are a fan of the genre and you don't know CADS, do check it out. I'm confident that you will be impressed.

Several long-standing contributors are again featured. They include Barry Pike, continuing his series about the Mr Fortune series of H.C.Bailey. The fact that I've developed an increasing admiration for Bailey is largely due to Barry's advocacy; I still find Bailey's style irksome, but I've been persuaded that at his best, he was a very powerful and unusual writer.  There are no fewer than three short pieces by the indefatigible Philip Scowcroft, one of them dealing with Val Gielgud, whose detective fiction is discussed surprisingly seldom. Tony Medawar contributes another "On This Day" snippet, and Mike Ripley writes about Peter Cheney, while there is a poignant final contribution from the late Bob Adey.

Geoff talks about Bob in his editorial notes, and there is also a wonderful piece by Scott Herbertson about someone else who, in a very different way, is also a huge loss to the crime fiction community, P.D. James. I very much enjoyed John Cooper's essay about Henry Wade's Inspector Poole, while Curt Evans writes about Ianthe Jerrold, two of whose detective novels are happily available again after a long gap.

I haven't written as much for CADS in recent years as I've wished, because of the demands of The Golden Age of Murder (which to my amazement has just been reviewed in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal) and other projects, but this time I've contributed an essay which talks about the influence that CADS has had on my book. As anyone who has read the book, and in particular the end notes, will see, that influence has been quite considerable and has spanned many years. Had it not been for what I have learned from CADS, I would still have written the book, but it wouldn't have had as much information in it. I'm one of many writers and crime fans who has cause to thank Geoff for his decades of hard work as editor.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Azma Dar - guest blog about The Secret Arts

Azma Dar is a playwright who has turned to crime fiction with a book called  The Secret Arts, published by Dean Street Press, whose eclectic list includes numerous classic crime reprints. I've not yet read her novel, but I'm always pleased to learn of newcomers to the crime writing scene, and here's a guest blog post from her which explains the background:

"Although crime is my favourite genre, I’d always been a bit scared to try my hand at it myself, worried that I wasn’t clever enough to write an ingenious plot. My plays are mostly set in London and explore contemporary themes and issues, serious subjects looked at with, I hope, a bit of humour. I’d wanted to write something about black magic, superstitions and “religious” old men who sold charms and cures for some time. I’d heard of these beliefs whilst growing up. 

Unfortunate events were often attributed to evil eyes and curses, and I was fascinated and angered by how easily these theories, rooted in tradition and culture, were accepted by otherwise intelligent and rational minds. Then, on a trip to Pakistan, I heard even more outlandish but supposedly true anecdotes, involving protective chillis, mystical glasses of water, wicked in-laws, jinns, spirits and the odd boiled egg. The idea for a sinister, murderous novel began to take shape.

During that trip we visited the small town of Murree, a pretty, old fashioned place in the hills, full of forests and precarious winding roads. Most strikingly, it was enveloped in a creeping mist. It would seem like a clear day, then suddenly within minutes you could see no further than a couple of metres. It was all that lovely fog which inspired me to set the novel in Murree. It felt like a really atmospheric backdrop for a spooky story.

The novel became The Secret Arts, the story of Saika, a young woman who marries an older man, a respectable Colonel, but her bliss is short lived when she starts hearing rumours about the suspicious death of his first wife. Meanwhile the rest of the family members are entangled in lies and secrets, meddling in black magic and placing curses on each other. When one of her cousins is murdered, and her husband starts behaving strangely, Saika becomes determined to unravel the truth...."

Friday, 22 May 2015

Forgotten Book - The Judas Window

Why has it taken me so long to get round to reading Carter Dickson's The Judas Window? It is regarded highly by a number of good judges who are fans of Dickson - better known as John Dickson Carr. I suppose my main justification for describing it as a Forgotten Book is that I've forgotten, or at least neglected, to read it until now.

I've long admired Carr's work, and his mastery of the intricacies of the "impossible crime". In particular, I am a fan of the books featuring Dr Gideon Fell, the Chestertonian lexicographer who strs in classics such as The Hollow Man. A good many people prefer Sir Henry Merrivale, alias "H.M.", who is the rumbustious hero of the books written under the Carter Dickson alias. This is, in part, because of their humour - one of the neat features of the stories is that sometimes a slapstick scene will conceal an important clue to the mystery.

Merrivale features in a truly brilliant short story, "The House in Goblin Wood", but I've not been quite as keen on some of the Merrivale novels I've read. But The Judas Window is a high calibre mystery, no question of that. It's also rather different from "typical" Carr stories, in that it centres around a murder trial at the Old Bailey- and Merrivale is counsel for the defence.

His client is Jimmy Answell, a young man who seems the only possible suspect in a locked room murder case. We know Jimmy is innocent, but how on earth can this be established, in the face of apparently overwhelming evidence that he killed his prospective father-in-law? As the trial proceeds, we come across testimony from various people in the dead man's circle - but how can any of them have committed the crime? And if one of them did do the dastardly deed, for what reason?

The technicalities of the crime are very cleverly handled. I was much less convinced by the culprit's motivation, but the fact is that Carr was not as preoccupied with criminal psychology as some of his colleagues in the Detection Club. Yet he could weave a tantalising mystery, and I agree with those who rate this book highly. If you are a locked room fan, I recommend you get round to reading it more quickly than I did..

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Reaction to The Golden Age of Murder

When you publish a book, it's usually far from easy to predict how it will be received. You've done your best with it, your agent and editor are happy with it (bad news if they aren't!), but you can never quite be sure how others will react. Authors are often said not to be the best judges of their own work. My most commercially successful novel is The Coffin Trail, and in sales terms, my least commercially successful, is Dancing for the Hangman. Yet my own feeling is that the latter book is possibly, in literary terms, my best. Who knows? All these judgments are subjective, like all reviews.

So I was unsure about how people would respond to The Golden Age of Murder. It's 25 years (even I find this hard to believe) since I pitched the idea of an Oxford Companion about the crime genre to the late Michael Cox, then a senior editor at Oxford University Press, and later a successful novelist, so people can see how long it's taken me to reach this point. When you've worked long and hard on a project, you hope the results will justify the effort. But there are no guarantees; life isn't like that.

I realised over time that I wanted to write a book that was ambitious, wide-ranging, very personal, and... different. Rash of me, really. I don't even know for sure if it is, as some have said, a reference book. A quarter of a century ago, I did want to write a reference book, but my priorities have evolved as I've developed as a novelist. Above all, I wanted to tell a story, and the more I researched it, the more I felt that the story of the early years of the Detection Club deserved to be told. And it was important to me to tell the story with a degree of empathy with the writers, and also with humour .

To say that I've been thrilled by readers' reaction to this book to date is true, but it hardly conveys the excitement I feel about the number of people who have "got" what I was trying to do. It's a long book, with a tight structure that is not very obvious, although each chapter does have a distinct theme. So I thought that the readers most likely to appreciate it might be those who read it more than once, and then found they enjoyed going back to it. And since I was aiming to interest Golden Age fans but also to intrigue and entertain those who  had little or no real interest in GA books, I was expecting quite a lot of scepticism. That may still come, of course. But the reviews so far have been fantastic, beyond my wildest dreams..I've been lucky throughout my career to have been reviewed in national newspapers as well as specialist magazines and more recently blogs, but I've never had so many great reviews in such a short space of time

One or two extremely interesting projects have already been mooted as a result of the book's appearance, and if anything comes of them, that will certainly be a bonus. In my own mind, I am primarily a novelist and short story writer, rather than a writer of non-fiction, but I care about, and take care over, all my books, and I certainly care very much about the story told in The Golden Age of Murder. I'm so pleased that plenty of other people seem to care too.


Monday, 18 May 2015

Crimefest 2015

I'm just back from Crimefest, which was - as always - brilliantly organised by Adrian, Myles, Donna and their friendly and hard-working team. Twenty-five years have passed since I attended my first crime convention, the London Bouchercon of 1990, and during that time conventions have become an important part of the literary landscape - unquestionably a Good Thing.

Adrian and company kindly agreed that the Forgotten Authors' panel this year should be themed around The Golden Age of Murder,and I had a wonderful group of friends to help me in celebrating the book's UK publication (celebration enhanced over the course of the convention by terrific reviews from The Daily Mail, The Spectator, Bookbag, and Crime Fiction Lover). Dolores Gordon-Smith, Aline Templeton, John Curran and this year's CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Catherine Aird all came up with all manner of insights for the audience, and it was sheer pleasure to moderate the panel (the photo was taken by Karen Meek, whose Eurocrime blog is required reading for fans.)

That evening, I had dinner with Catherine and a few friends - a memorable occasion. She is one of those authors I admired long before I met her, and when we did meet, I found, as I have often done with major authors, that she is great company as well as a fine detective novelist. I continue to hope very much that she will publish her long-awaited biography of Josephine Tey, about whom she spoke rather movingly.

My second panel, moderated by John Harvey (whose "Fedora" is one of the best crime short stories of the past decade), tacked the subject of the short story. Andrew Taylor intrigued me by talking about his ghost story, which is a Kindle single,, and I was delighted to meet Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who read out a very short but striking example of his work. The other panellist was Christine Poulson, one of Britain's most under-rated crime writers, and author of several highly distinctive short stories. Other events of note included Sophie Hannah and Matthew Prichard talking about The Monogram Murders, and Lee Child interviewing the legendary Maj Sjowall.

The banquet was smoothly run, and I was very lucky with all my dining companions, who included Catherine Aird, Sheila Mitchell (widow of Harry Keating) and James Runcie, author of the highly successful Grantchester books, who proved to be a witty toastmaster. I'd never met James before, but soon discovered he was a fellow Manchester City fan; after that, it was a struggle not to keep talking football, but somehow we managed it.

I met some other pleasant people for the first time, and as ever it was good to catch up with old friends. The latter include Ali Karim, pictured above with The Golden Age of Murder. Ali is one of the most entertaining companions one could wish to have, and I am really sorry that I shall not be with him at Bouchercon at Raleigh in October, where he will make a fabulous job of his far from easy task as programming chair. I also had the chance to talk to the publishers of the CWA fiction anthology and non-fiction anthology, as well as to catch up with my own publisher, Susie Dunlop of Allison & Busby, who hosted a drinks party during the week-end. It was lovely to see her again, and I'm so glad she's pleased with the next Lake District Mystery, The Dungeon House. All in all, a terrific week-end which I shall long remember.


Friday, 15 May 2015

Forgotten Book - The Blunderer

The Blunderer, by Patricia Highsmith, was first published in 1954. By that time, she had already made her name, with her brilliant debut novel Strangers on a Train. She'd also written, under a pseudonym, a lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, later (wisely, I think) re-titled Carol. A year later she would publish her other great masterpiece, The Talented Mr Ripley. So she was clearly at a very productive and intense stage of her career. And The Blunderer illustrates her strengths pretty well, though it also reveals some of her limitations.

The set-up is, as usual with Highsmith, intriguing. In the first chapter, an unpleasant chap called Kimmel murders his wife, having first taken the precaution of trying to set up an alibi. Attention then shifts to the life of Walter Stackhouse, an affluent, good-looking and personable young lawyer with a rather irritating wife. In due course, the lives of Stackhouse and Kimmel will collide, with devastating results for both of them.

This book begins really well, and I found the central premise fascinating. Unfortunately, I became increasingly irritated with Walter's behaviour. He is a prime example of a Highsmith protagonist who behaves in a manner that is not only self-destructive, but also so obviously so that it is difficult to maintain sympathy with him. The same pattern recurs in books like A Suspension of Mercy and Those Who Walk Away, which I reviewed recently. Highsmith deploys various techniques in her attempt to persuade us to suspend our disbelief. In this early book, I think she is less successful than in the later books. I found my sympathy for Walter draining away, and this diminished my interest in his fate.

That said, Highsmith was an admirably ambitious writer, and even her failures (and this book isn't, in my opinion, really a success) are more interesting than many books where the author is much less daring. More than sixty years after its first appearance, I feel that its prime interest is as an example of a relatively inexperienced novelist grappling with challenges of technique. But this is much more interesting than it may sound. I had very mixed feelings about The Blunderer, but I'm still glad I read it.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Memories of Brian Clemens

When I was growing up, I became aware that the name Brian Clemens often appeared on credits of TV shows that I enjoyed. The Avengers was a special favourite. I never met him, and he died in January aged 83. Recently, I was contacted by his sons about a new Clemens project, and to explain more, let me hand over to Sam Clemens, who offered to give me some personal insights into his father's life and work:

"Living with Brian Clemens was always an adventure and an education. He had an incredible encyclopedic memory and was quick to educate and provoke if necessary. He loved to read and felt that reading is what spurred on a huge amount of his creativity. His favorite writer was Charles Dickens and favorite book ‘Diary Of A Nobody’. He read diagonally, so as to speed read. I remember he read ‘Hannibal’ in a morning! When he was a boy, his uncle Horace would bring him books to read, ranging from fiction, encyclopedias, to instruction manuals on cameras or the latest technology. Growing up listening to the radio and being a boy during the war, he always said kept his imagination rife. Many times he would say he loved the war period, as it was so exciting for a young boy to find bullet casings, bits of shrapnel or to walk through ruins and smoke fuelled aftermaths. At the age of 10 his father Bertie bought him his first typewriter, the rest as they say is history.

When asked about the discipline of writing, Dad would always say ‘Arse to chair, pen to paper!’ a motto drilled into him by ‘The Danziger Brothers’ early on in his career. He always maintained it stood him in good stead because after writing for them, he thought everything else was fairly easy. This is because the Danziger’s bought old sets from other movies and would make small B pictures to run alongside the bigger films. The sets very often being the catalyst for the stories themselves. Having to write a film with a submarine, a Victorian street and a pyramid and be able to have half an hour cut out for a TV version and still make sense was a master class in writing and an end to procrastination. Deadlines were set and met. Dad always said it was like being in a theatre repertory company for writers.

His happiest time was on ‘The Avengers’ as he could create almost anything he wanted; also he was able to work with all of his close friends. Raymond Austin, Laurie Johnson, Patrick Macnee, Bob Fuest, Albert Fennell, Sidney Hayers, James Hill, Richard Harris, Terry Nation, John Hough, Johnny Goodman, Bob Jones, Ivy Baker, June Randall, the list goes on…

Dad’s writing style was very often bizarre and wonderful. Although he wrote fantasy, he was not that fond of the genre, preferring a good thriller. He was never afraid of ghosts but of who was lurking upstairs or around the corner. Reality scared him. He was a nightmare to watch films with, as he would always guess the ending. I remember he guessed the twist in ‘The Crying Game’ in the trailer! He loved a good story and a great plot but what was most important were the characters. I think the image of ‘Mother’ in ‘The Avengers’ sitting in the middle of a swimming pool, in a suit with a telephone sums him up. His characters could be devilishly surreal or completely grounded in reality depending on what world he was writing for.  My opinion of Dad is that he was a master of being able to adapt to whomever he was working with and whatever he was working on. A nice piece of advice he offered writers in the last few years of his life was that you should always stop knowing what the next ten pages are going to be the next day. That way when you begin the next day you can continue without staring at the blank page.

The other love and inspiration were movies. You could never come to our house without either being shown or talking about movies. Again, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of them and unknowingly gave George and myself an education in film. He would watch Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, The Terminator, The Cruel Sea, Star Wars, again the list was endless and very varied indeed. He really had great affection for central European films, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hungarian etc. He would find films we had never heard of and they would end up being household favorites. ‘The Page Turner’, ‘The Castle’, ‘Les Diaboliques’, ‘The Wages Of Fear’, ‘Rififi’.

We were lucky enough in the last few years of his life to work on a script together called ‘The Still’. A supernatural horror film, which we are developing right now. It was a privilege to work together and he was always very supportive of our decisions. He never pressured us into following him into his business. I trained as an actor at The Drama Centre London and have been working since I graduated in 2001. In fact, I am playing Sherlock Holmes in his stage play of ‘Holmes & The Ripper Murders’ for Talking Scarlet Productions over the summer. George trained as an editor and has been working since 2004. We fell into making films together and it felt like all our training up till then was to be producing and directing together. We have made three short films and one teaser trailer (The Still) together. Our last short ‘Dress Rehearsal’ is currently being entered into film festivals all over the world, which Dad was Executive Producer. Our latest short is entitled ‘Surgery’ and was Dad’s very last idea. We were discussing it together the day before he died. We wanted to make this for us but also as a tribute to our father. We are running a crowdfunding campaign because we need to raise £4K for the postproduction of the film. The film stars Nicholas Ball (Hazell), Jamie Lee (Cold Mountain, Lassie, Shackelton) and Lara Lemon (A Prelude To Fear). It is darker than Dad’s previous material but again, his adaptive nature allowed him to think this little horror nasty up.

George and I have plenty of Dad’s unproduced scripts to pursue in the future and we intend to do so. Look out for his WW2 picture ‘The Long Road West’, a script he maintained was his finest, as we agree too.  Brian Clemens fans, there is still plenty more of Brian to come. Watch this space…..

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Woman in Black - film review

The Woman in Black is a 2012 film adapted from the famous and immensely successful  story by Susan Hill. It's set in the Edwardian era, and concerns Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young widowed solicitor with a small son who is looked after by a nanny. His grief has affected his work, and his boss sends him out to a remote Northern village to look into a probate matter, saying that he is on a "final warning" (here, and in some other instances, I felt that the screenplay failed to capture the dialogue of the period.)

Kipps finds that his attempt to visit Eel Marsh House (great name!) is very unpopular with people in the village. The innkeeper doesn't want to put him up, and the local solicitor is no help at all. But he bribes someone to take him across an eerie causeway, through the marshes, to the spooky and half-derelict mansion.

Bad Things have happened at the house, and they soon start happening to Arthur. The house is full of old child's toys, and although they are a rather hackneyed device in stories like this, very effective use is made of them .The ghostly Woman in Black makes her appearance, and something terrible happens in the village.

Arthur is befriended by an older man called Sam, whose child died some time ago, leaving Sam's wife in a dreadful state. Sam doesn't believe in ghosts, but before long the Woman in Black reappears...

I enjoyed this film. Of course, ghost films set in haunted houses are something of a cliche, but the story is a strong one compared to many, and its success is unsurprising. Radcliffe and Hinds are excellent, and despite a few moments of clunkiness in the script, I was gripped from start to finish. Apparently a sequel has recently been released, to rather less acclaim..

Stranger Than Fiction by Neil Clark

The full title of Neil Clark's new book is Stranger than Fiction: The Life of Edgar Wallace, The Man Who Created King Kong. That rather suggests an anxiety that people may not know who Edgar Wallace was. And it's true that, inevitably, given that more than eighty years have passed since his death, his name is much less well known than it used to be. But it remains the case, I think, that it is still fairly well known.

I first came across Edgar Wallace as a teenager, in the days when some of his books were being reprinted as Pan paperbacks. I wasn't so keen on the thrillers,but I remember that I quite enjoyed The Clue of the Silver Key, which was closer to the sort of detective story that I loved. I also caught several episodes of that long-running TV series, Edgar Wallace Mysteries. Later, I read The Four Just Men, which strikes me as very interesting as a slice of social and political history. It's also revealing, in that Wallace discusses a society fearful of immigration, and his instincts are clearly liberal.

Neil Clark discusses Wallace's interest in politics, as well as his journalism, his gambling and various other escapades. He was in many ways a rascal - I've always felt that his role in the Crippen case, when he was desperate to tease a confession out of Crippen, was discreditable. He wasn't a reliable or particularly trustworthy man. But he had a number of very important gifts. Above all, he was a great story-teller.

I'm involved in a Wallace-related project myself at the moment, and I found this book useful, as was the much earlier biography by Margaret Lane. The publisher of Clark's book is The History Press, who, perhaps I should mention, also recently published my CWA anthology, Truly Criminal. As usual, they have produced an attractive book that is well worth reading. I regret the lack of an index, which seems to me to be a mistake, but overall this is a book which I am sure will help to remind people of what an interesting writer and character Edgar Wallace really was. And yes, his life story was indeed stranger than fiction.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Murder without Crime - DVD review

Murder without Crime is a 1950 movie that is a sort of British film noir. It certainly has several intriguing features. These include its origins. It began life as a play called Double Error, written by John Lee Thompson, a Bristol-born actor who turned to writing for the stage, and it ran briefly in London in 1935. Seven years later, a revised version, Murder without Crime, enjoyed much more success in the West End, although when it transferred to Broadway, it sank without trace. This info, by the way, comes from Amnon Kabatchnik's monumental Blood on the Stage, which is a superb source; one of these days, I'll talk in more detail about Katbatchnik's books on mystery plays.

After the war, Thompson adapted his play into a screenplay, and directed a film version. The theatrical origins of the story are fairly apparent, and there are only four actors. Dennis Price is suave and menacing as the odious landlord Matthew. Derek Farr is Stephen, his tenant, who lives in the flat above Matthew's with his wife Jan, Patricia Plunkett. When the couple have a row, Jan walks out, and Matthew takes Stephen to a club - the Teneriffe - where he introduces him to the young blonde hostess Grena (Joan Dowling.) Stephen, who is not the brightest of men to put it mildly, gets involved with Grena,with disastrous consequences.

I enjoyed this film, even though I could have done without the American-style voiceover, which simply didn't fit a very British story. There are, however, several nods to the film noir style of direction, and you can tell that Thompson was experimenting, and learning his craft. He proved to be a very good learner, and in due course, as J. Lee Thompson, he directed several major films, including Cape Fear, Ice Cold in Alex, and The Guns of Navarone.

Dennis Price was always a fascinating actor, and he plays the bad guy with his customary style. But I was most interested to find out about Joan Dowling. There is a very poignant Pathe news feature about her on Youtube, filmed when she signed up with a movie company at the age of 18. The world was at her feet, it seemed. Yet four years after making Murder without Crime, she committed suicide, gassing herself. A profoundly tragic story. I'd like to think she enjoyed appearing in Murder without Crime, and that she was proud of her performance. More generally, this is a film that I can recommend. Not perfect, but decent entertainment. It deserves to be better known..

Friday, 8 May 2015

Forgotten Book - Detectives in Gum Boots

Detectives in Gum Boots is an obscure novel by Roger East, a rather interesting crime writer, and it's my pick for today's Forgotten Book. I've only ever seen one copy, a rather tatty paperback that I snapped up at a book fair. There hasn't been much discussion about East on the internet of which I'm aware,but as ever, John Norris has written interestingly about him, in a review of Candidate for Lilies", a book I haven't read.

The story features Colin Knowles, a writer who pops up from time to time in East's work as a sort of cheery amateur sleuth. Here, he is reporting, in effect, to East's series cop, Superintendent Simmonds, about a case in which he was personally involved when Simmonds were out of the country. At the time of the events of the story, Colin's marriage to the lively and lovely Louie is going through a rough patch, and much of the book is devoted to the by-play between them. Some of it is amusing, but I rather felt that East overdid it.

East's strength was his lightness of touch, and he could also fashion a decent plot twist, as he does here. The trouble is that we wait an awful long time for a bit of excitement. The story begins when Louie's boss, a member of the peerage, goes missing. Eventually he is found murdered, but I really found it far from easy to care. The pool of suspects is small,and the action is rather dragged out.

On the whole, I was disappointed with this book - the solution is pretty good, but the story as a whole is not strong enough to sustain interest. East could do better than this - for instance, I did like his earlier book Murder Rehearsal, in which Colin Knowles also appears. And John makes Candidate for Lilies sound like a must-read. Perhaps East too felt disappointed with what he had done on this occasion - this novel was published in 1936, and his next did not appear until the 50s. East's real name, by the way, was Roger d'Este Burford; he was among other things, a poet, diplomat and screenwriter.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Publication Day!

Never mind the General Election. For me, the exciting event of 7 May 2015 has to be the long-awaited (by me, anyway) UK publication of The Golden Age of Murder. When I reflect on how many years ago I started researching for a potential book about detective fiction, I find it hard to believe that it's finally hitting the shelves. I'm at least as excited as when my first novel was published.

Many people helped me to make the book into what it is. I've mentioned plenty of names in the acknowledgements, and I hope I haven't forgotten too many, but I'd like to make special mention of my agent, James Wills, and my editor, David Brawn. I wondered for several years whether I would find anyone in the publishing world who believed in this book. James and David do, and for that, I'll always be grateful.

One always wonders how one's new book will be received, and I was more than usually nervous about this one, given its very ambitious and unorthodox nature - and, let's face it, the fact that it's not exactly a slim volume. To say that I've been thrilled by the reviews to date is no exaggeration. I have highlighted the key quotes here. It's intensely rewarding to see some of the same enthusiastic phrases recurring in reviews written on both sides of the Atlantic.

I found, both at Malice Domestic, and at a talk I gave to members of the Liverpool Athenaeum yesterday, that there is enormous affection for and interest in Golden Age fiction. This has been under-estimated for decades, but the success of the British Library Crime Classics (over a quarter of a million paperbacks sold!) has shown that the appeal of classic mysteries is not just confined to a few diehards. The best books of the past have continuing appeal to vast numbers of readers.

Sarah Weinman has just said of The Golden Age of Murder: "this love he has for crime fiction permeates every page of this book." Despite being non-fiction, this is a very personal book, and I'm glad that I've managed to convey my love of the genre. My hope is that the book will inspire others, especially those who are not instinctive Golden Age fans, to take a fresh look at the wonderful fiction of the past, and to see it in a new light.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Ruth Rendell R.I.P.

I learned of the sad news of the death of Ruth Rendell a few minutes before joining Katherine Hall Page for our "Malice Remembers" conversation about Patricia Moyes. We both felt that it was right to pay a brief tribute to Rendell before turning to Moyes, though breaking the news to audience members who were unaware of the loss of this great writer was bound to be a shock.

I've been a huge admirer of Ruth Rendell for many years, and I've often referred to her as my favourite living crime writer. I recall meeting Sophie Hannah for the first time when we were on a panel together in Runcorn, and an audience member asked me to name my favourite crime writers. I named Agatha Christie among those who were dead, and Rendell from among the living. Sophie - who had just published her first novel - exclaimed: "I was going to say that!" A shared enthusiasm is a good way to bond with a fellow author..

I'm sure that Rendell, along with her friend P.D. James, will be ranked as one of the great writers of popular fiction of the second half of the twentieth century. I enjoyed her Wexford novels, such as A Sleeping Life, but I enjoyed the non-Wexfords even more. A Judgement in Stone is a masterpiece, a crime genre cornerstone, and books like A Demon in My View and The Lake of Darkness almost equally brilliant. As if this wasn't enough, she proceeded to write stunning novels as Barbara Vine. My favourite is A Fatal Inversion, but the quality was invariably high. She wrote of particular,worlds - much bleaker and more restricted than, for instance, those of the great Reg Hill, who once gently teased her at an event I attended; Her books, unlike Reg's, seldom attempted humour, but she explored her favoured landscapes in utterly compelling fashion.

That wasn't all. She was an equally gifted short story writer, and when she tried her hand at a novella, the result, Heartstones, was characteristically excellent. For decades, she maintained an astonishingly high standard, despite being very productive. I cannot think of any prolific crime writer, with the possible exception of Reg himself, who has kept writing at anything like such a consistently high level for so long. Inevitably, as the twenty-first century dawned, she found it more difficult to avoid repeating herself and books such as The Saint Zita Society seemed to me to fall well short of her earlier, stellar achievements. Nevertheless, few crime novelists of the past fifty years have left such a wonderful legacy.

In my own writing, I like to pay occasional tributes to writers and other people whom I admire - Conan Doyle, Christie and so on. When I was planning The Arsenic Labyrinth, I conceived my version of a "Ruth Rendell type of sociopath" in the character of Guy. I loved writing about Guy, and I may return to that type of character one day. But of course, nobody could match Rendell..

One more thing. I never chatted to Ruth Rendell in person, but I corresponded with her, and on several occasions I invited her to contribute short stories to CWA anthologies that I was editing. Each and every time, she agreed readily, and authorised her agent to accept exactly the same - extremely modest - fee offered to other contributors. She did not attend CWA events, as far as I know, but she remained a member right to the end. I found her willingness to help truly admirable. and it's yet another reason why I respected her so much.


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Malice Domestic

I'm back in the UK from another wonderful Malice Domestic in Washington DC (my luggage, however, evidently decided to take an extended vacation in the States...) It was a breathless trip, not helped by a very late arrival in the small hours after an unscheduled half-day stuck in an airport, and a melodramatic return journey, but the tireless team running the convention surpassed themselves and I'm indebted to them for a number of personal kindnesses. To Verena, Joni, Janet, Shawn, Angel and company - thank you.

One of the joys of attending such conventions, and a reason why I strongly recommend them to others, is the chance to combine renewal of old friendships with meeting new and delightful people. The social side is, for me, at least as important as the "business" side of the panels. It's impossible to mention everyone I enjoyed meeting, but there were several highlights. These included the honorees' dinner, to which I was invited because I was co-representing the "Malice Remembers" honoree, the late Patricia Moyes, with the charming Katherine Hall Page, and brunch with Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and a group including Josh Pachter and Art Taylor, who had won another Agatha award the previous evening.for another fine short story.

On Friday, there was a dream dinner for any Golden Age fan. Drinks with a group including Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, were followed by a hugely convivial meal along with Doug Greene, Steve Steinbock, Brian Skupin of Mystery Scene, multi-award winning author of fiction and non-fiction Dan Stashower, and "impossible crime" expert John Pugmire. I'd never met Michael, Dan or John before, and it was a real pleasure to do so.

As for the events on the programme, Katherine and I talked on Saturday about Patricia Moyes' work, and some other aspects of post-Golden Age whodunit writing. Sunday was hectic. After that brunch, Doug moderated a Golden Age panel including Steve, Dan, and myself (photo courtesy of Gigi Pandian.) All I need say is that, as throughout the week-end, I felt quite humbled by the kind things said about The Golden Age of Murder. Finally, I interviewed the International Guest of Honour, Ann Cleeves, and the chance to pay a personal tribute to such an old friend was really the perfect way to round off the convention.

Naturally I succumbed to temptation and acquired more books, including the latest from Katherine Hall Page and Shawn Reilly Simmons, and the newly translated (by John Pugmire) The House that Kills by Noel Vindry, "the French John Dickson Carr". I had less time for sight-seeing than I'd hoped, but managed to squeeze in a tour of the International Spy Museum, which was fun.

Later, as I sat for a very long time in a departure lounge, listening to an unhappy US Airlines passenger screaming because of the way she'd been treated, before she was led away by a large man with a large dog, I cast my personal vote for US Airlines in the Worst Airline of the Year awards (I'd already suffered a sense of humour failure when I was prevented from taking a flight to Washington that I'd paid for months in advance, because they sold more seats than existed on the plane and was offered one dollar in compensation), and wondered wearily whether I'd been unwise to embark on such a frenetic trip. I don't think so. The upsides far outweighed the hassles of travel. I am keen to go back to Malice Domestic as soon as I can.

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Disappearance of Alice Creed - film review

The Disappearance of Alice Creed, written and directed by J. Blakeson, is a 2009 film that packs a punch. Cosy it isn't, and there are one or two scenes that are not for the squeamish. However, although it isn't lacking in violence or nudity, it does not seem to me to be a film that you could fairly condemn as exploitative. If it were, I doubt whether Gemma Arterton wouldn't have accepted the very demanding role of the eponymous Alice. She's an in-demand actor, and this film was shot on a low budget, but it nevertheless has a touch of quality about it.

The story concerns the kidnapping of a young woman, though the title of the film has an added significance. The film begins by showing two men making various preparations - it becomes clear that they are organising a secure place where they can hold their proposed victim. They duly kidnap her, bundle her into a van, and chain her up. But then the story starts to move in an unexpected direction,and it remains unpredictable right to the end.

The two kidnappers are played by Eddie Marsan, who seems to have cornered the market in dodgy characters with a vulnerable streak, and Martin Compston. And they, together with Gemma Arterton, make up the complete cast. The interplay between this trio is gripping throughout. Blakeson's script is taut, and his direction efficient, it's all the more impressive that this was his first movie.

The film was shot on the Isle of Man, an island I like very much, but it doesn't set out to make anything of its setting. Blakeson's focus is on the characters and above all, the question of what will happen next. And I found that I really did want to find out.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Forgotten Book - Those Who Walk Away

Those Who Walk Away is a Patricia Highsmith novel from 1967, which shares some themes with her earlier book, The Blunderer. I happened to read the two novels in quick succession while away on holiday, and so the similarities were quite noticeable. I'll have more to say about The Blunderer on another day, but overall, I feel that Those Who Walk Away is slightly the stronger of the two books.

One reason is that the book gains significantly from its setting, in Venice. Venice is such a strange, beautiful, mysterious city that one can readily believe anything can happen there. That's why I chose it as the setting for "The Bookbinder's Apprentice", possibly the short story of mine that has enjoyed most success; it's not a story that could really have been set anywhere else. And the labyrinthine nature of the city makes it ideal as a backdrop for the cat and mouse game that is at the heart of Those Who Walk Away.

In fact, the story opens in Rome. Ray Garrett's wife Peggy has recently committed suicide, and her doting and sometimes doltish father Ed Coleman holds Ray responsible. We never learn very much about Peggy, and no grand surprise about her death is withheld until the end of the story - this isn't a puzzle mystery, but a book about the mysteries of human nature. Coleman shoots Ray, and although Ray survives, he doesn't report the incident to the police. Rather, he follows Coleman to Venice, and tries to reason with him.

The difficulty with Ray (and it's a difficulty I have with many of Highsmith's protagonists) is that the tendency to scream at them Don't be so stupid! is at times overwhelming .To enjoy the books, one has to accept certain premises, and to suspend disbelief - sometimes from a great height! Readers who can manage this will enjoy the book as, with some reservations, I did. However, I suspect that by the time she wrote this novel, Highsmith was coming to realise that she could not successfully play the same games with different protagonists in her novels time and time again, and I think that may help to explain the subsequent trajectory of her career, and her increasing focus on Tom Ripley and on short stories.