Friday, 31 July 2015

Forgotten Book - Earth to Ashes

Alan Brock is undoubtedly a forgotten writer, but I enjoyed Further Evidence, which I covered on this blog a little while ago, and duly encouraged, I tried his 1939 novel Earth to Ashes. I wasn't disappointed. It's a very readable story indeed, and it has the added bonus of being based on a true crime that interests me greatly (although Brock is careful to include a prefatory note making it clear that there are many differences between his story and the actual case.)

An affable and charming man called Brooks befriends the attractive Maude Ashe, only to learn that she is married, albeit to an invalid. The Ashes aren't poverty-stricken by any means, but a little extra money never does any harm, and soon they take in Brooks as a lodger. Brooks pursues his interest in Maude, and although she resists his overtures, she does so in such a way as to give him a degree of encouragement. So he persists, and their relationship develops.

The story switches gear when it becomes apparent that Brooks is not all it seems. Soon the reader with an interest in murder cases of the past will recognise similarities between his behaviour and that of A.A. Rouse, who in 1930 was tried in connection with the notorious "Blazing Car Murder". As it happens, I wrote about that very case recently in Truly Criminal. It has long fascinated me, and elements of the case have featured in stories by authors as notable as Dorothy L. Sayers, J. J. Connington, and Milward Kennedy.

Brock does a good job of maintaining interest, even when he switches focus from the behaviour of Brooks to the investigation carried out by the police. His depiction of the relationship between a clever young constable and his less than brilliant boss is entertaining, and his variations on the Rouse case theme are pleasing. I'm rather surprised that Brock has been ignored for so long. His books aren't easy to find, but I'm on the look-out for another. This is definitely a good one.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Harrogate - and a question

Other commitments have meant that I'm reporting on the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate ten days after it came to an end. But it was a really enjoyable week-end, and it's prompted me to ask readers of this blog a question.

The programming chair for the Festival was Ann Cleeves, and she is such an efficient person that it was predictable that the whole week-end would be very well organised. And it was. Ann would be the first to give much credit to the very professional team that handles all the arrangements. It all seemed to me to run like clockwork. As usual, there was much socialising in the bar and elsewhere, and I took the opportunity to have a number of meetings, not least with my agent, with whom I was discussing my future writing plans. The good news is that he is happy with them!

I enjoyed the hospitality of Harper Collins at a dinner on the Friday evening, and met a number of fascinating people, including a new author, Ben McPherson; I sense that his debut novel will be well worth looking out for. Later on, Ann introduced me to Brenda Blethyn, the extremely pleasant star of Vera, and I finished up having a long chat with an old friend, that very fine writer Peter Robinson. The following night, I hosted a table at the Sicilian-themed murder mystery dinner masterminded by Kate Ellis. Great fun.

On Sunday, I took part in a panel celebrating the life and work of Patricia Highsmith. The moderator was Andrew Taylor and my colleagues were Peter James, Perer Swanson, and Sarah Hilary. Sarah had just won the Theakstons Prize for best crime novel of the year, and this gave me special pleasure as some years ago I included an early short story of hers in one of my anthologies for the CWA. She is a real star.

One questioner in the audience raised the issue of the relative significance of the author's life and the author's work. And this is my question to you - how interested, if at all, are you in the biography of a writer? Do you think it's relevant to their books?

My own views on this have shifted over the years. I used to think that the books were overwhelmingly more important than the life. Now, I take much more interest in the biographical material. In fact, I now think that you can't fully appreciate Highsmith (who, admittedly, had an extraordinary life) without knowing something of her life. But I'm sure that plenty of readers would take a different view. So - do let me know your opinion, and why you hold it.. 

Monday, 27 July 2015

The Golden Age of Murder - time to reflect

The past three months have been hectic, as The Golden Age of Murder has been published, and I've been running hither and thither to promote it, whilst not forgetting my other recent books, the anthologies Resorting to Murder and Truly Criminal. And now I've just received the fantastic news that the first edition hardback has almost sold out, and that the hardback edition is about to be reprinted.

I've been lucky with reviews over the years. Even for my legal books, believe it or not. But I've never had such an extensive and wonderful response to a book before. Take for instance the review in The Times by Marcel Berlins the other day, when the doyen of British crime critics set out his choice of summer reading. He said: "Few, if any , books about crime fiction have provided so much information and insight and, for the reader, so enjoyably...No other work mixes genre history, literary analysis and fascinating author biographies with such relish.

Wow! It really doesn't get any better than that for a writer, does it? I've been equally heartened by the many messages and emails I've received,about the book, quite literally from around the world, I've included extracts from the reviews on my website, and these have been extremely gratifying. Although the book is not a novel, I wrote it as a novelist, and poured a lot of myself into it. I'm glad that my enthusiasm for the Golden Age communicated itself. 

I'm also grateful for the interest shown by fellow bloggers, and various other sites - including the BBC History site, Dead Good Reads, and Publishers' Weekly- which have published blog posts or articles of mine linked to the book's themes. Special thanks go to those novelists and leading crime fiction experts who commented on my manuscript prior to publication, and made it a better book. They are all friends with wise judgement,that I trust implicitly, and I'm very much in their debt. So take a bow: Peter Lovesey, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Ann Cleeves, Doug Greene, John Curran, Tom Schantz, Tony Medawar and Arthur Robinson.

The photo of "Poirot the Butler bearing Martin's book' is one I really enjoyed when I came across on Facebook, and I'm reproducing it courtesy of Kathy Harig of that terrific book store Mystery Loves Company - thanks again, Kathy! I'll continue, of course, to talk about The Golden Age of Murder on this blog and elsewhere. How could I resist? But before long I'll also be turning my attention to my next novel, The Dungeon House, which is due to be published in the UK and US in September. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Partners in Crime - The Secret Adversary- BBC TV review

Partners in Crime, a new BBC series featuring Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, kicked off tonight with part one of The Secret Adversary, a thriller that was really quite a departure from her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie gave the title Partners in Crime to a collection of short stories written during the Twenties in which the Beresfords ran a detective agency and amused themselves by aping the methods of famous fictional sleuths.

Back in the Eighties, the Partners in Crime series was televised, and although some of the short stories are a little thin, Francesca Annis and James Warwick did a very good job as Tuppence and Tommy. So in theory the first question to ask about the new show is: how well did Jessica Raine and David Walliams do playing the same characters?

I suppose the real answer is that they are barely the same characters. The BBC hired Zinnie Harris, an accomplished mainstream playwright, to write the script, and I get the impression that she set herself the challenge of writing something as different from the original as was possible. Not just updating the story thirty years to the Cold War era, but introducing a touch of raunchiness and a scene in which a bumbling Tommy finds himself visiting a peep-show while on the trail of some bad guys.

Agatha Christie it ain't - the mystery element is pretty thin so far, as well - but it made for light and undemanding Sunday evening viewing. Not bad, and at times quite amusing, but definitely not for the purists. I'm fairly open-minded about this sort of thing, as I remind myself that I was introduced to Christie as a child through my enjoyment of a Miss Marple film based on a book that actually featured Poirot. To this day,I'm a huge Christie fan, but I'll approach future episodes with the intention of trying to forget the source material for the time being. Comparisons are pointless. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Forgotten Writer - Simon Nash

Something a little different today - the story of a forgotten writer, rather than a forgotten book. It's a story that came to me through the unlikeliest of routes. When I took part in the recent Liverpool University conference on James Ellroy, and spoke about The Golden Age of Murder, I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Routledge. 

Chris told me about a writer I was unfamiliar with - even though I have a copy of the Barzun and Taylor book (see below) which features one of his novels. I was so intrigued by the story that I asked Chris to tell me more, and I'm delighted that he's happy to share the tale with readers of this blog. Over to Chris.... 

"In the mid-twentieth century writing detective fiction had too much of a whiff of the lowbrow for many academics to admit to doing it, and yet many of them did, under assumed names. Michael Innes, pseudonym of J.I.M. Stewart is probably the best known. In what turned out to be the final few years of his life, I worked with my father in law to digitise some of the detective novels he wrote as a young academic in the early 1960s. Aiming to keep his academic publishing separate from his fiction, he used a pseudonym made from the surnames of his grandmothers: Simon Nash.

The Reverend Professor Raymond Chapman went on to have a successful academic career teaching English literature at the University of London, and continued in his parallel role as a non-stipendiary Anglican priest into a long and fruitful retirement. But in his 30s and early 40s, as Simon Nash, he wrote five detective novels based around his favourite subjects: the life of the university lecturer, English drama, and the day to day workings of parish churches.

Adam Ludlow, Nash’s series detective, is in many ways an idealised self-portrait of Raymond himself: he is a well-read lecturer in English literature, with a passion for Shakespeare, and a habit of coming up with an appropriate quotation for any given situation. Ludlow’s skill as a literary critic turns out to be unexpectedly ‘useful’ in reading clues and understanding character traits and motives. His gentle, but at times rather wicked, sense of humour is played off against the police inspector, Montero.

As is often the case in detective stories, the police in these novels are bound by protocol and thus doomed to appear dull operatives alongside the amateur detective’s imagination and flair. The pairing of Ludlow and Montero owes much to the precedent set by Holmes and Lestrade: despite their differences, Montero’s willingness to accept Ludlow’s superior intellect makes it possible for them to get along. But unlike Holmes, Adam Ludlow is no exceptional polymath. While his own ‘special knowledge’ enables him to solve these particular mysteries, he respects Montero’s expertise as a professional detective and accepts that he too is an educated man.
The first Adam Ludlow novel, Dead of a Counterplot (1962), was written for a competition run by the publisher Collins. It did’t win, but it was taken on by Geoffrey Bles and published in 1962. Four more Ludlow stories (Killed By Scandal (1962), Death over Deep Water (1964), Dead Woman’s Ditch (1964) and Unhallowed Murder (1966)) followed, before the combined forces of a young family and a developing academic career put a stop to Raymond’s novel writing. In truth Ludlow had probably run his course by then; by the mid-1960s the fashion for academic-as-detective stories was also on the wane.

Of the five novels Raymond wrote in his short career as Simon Nash, Killed by Scandal, a tale of murder in a suburban amateur dramatics society, was the most celebrated. It was among the ninety crime and detective novels named by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in their influential 1971 Catalogue of Crime, and was republished by Garland in 1983 as part of their series ‘Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction 1960-75’. All five novels were republished in the United States by Harper Row in 1985.

Raymond was delighted to be able to revive the Simon Nash novels and helped out in reading the digitised proofs to spot errors made by the OCR software and compounded by me. Sadly he died, aged 89, in November 2013, before we could go any further than the first two novels. I hope in time to complete the project and make all five Simon Nash novels available again."

This is the sort of project I love to hear about, and I'm very much looking forward to reading my first Simon Nash. Thanks, Chris.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Oxford and History

On Sunday night, immediately after departing from the Harrogate Festival (of which, more soon) I got in the mood for an unforgettable return to Oxford by watching, in a hotel on the outskirts of the city, "The Secret of Bay 5B." This was an episode of Inspector Morse dating back to 1989  This was an episode written by Alma Cullen, whom I had the pleasure of meeting many years ago, when my Harry Devlin books were first optioned for television, with Alma lined up to write the scripts. It never happened, which was not only the story of my life as regards TV,but also a shame, because she's written many excellent screenplays and proved to be excellent company.

Inspector Morse owed its success, as do its entertaining follow-ups Lewis and Endeavour, to a combination of well-plotted stories, quality acting, and perhaps above all, the wonderful background of Oxford. It was fascinating to see how little the city has changed, in all its real essentials, in more than a quarter of a century, and indeed in the many years since I spent a very happy time there. What changes are the "modern" bits. The richness of its history is an absolutely integral part of the city's appeal. Even if you don't love history as much as I do, being somewhere that has such an extraordinary past is quite a special feeling.

Alma's plot revolved around a corpse discovered in the Westgate multi-storey car park. Yet this is now being demolished - and a good thing too, I have to say; it was a very ugly place. Alma came up with a clever plot twist involving a car parking ticket and an alibi, and one other car-related change is the ease with which, in the 1980s, you could drive down High Street. Not so today. Oxford is now designed to be very unfriendly to motorists, which is fine as long as you don't have to collect loads of luggage from your offspring's college right in the centre of the city...

The occasion of my trip was again offspring-related, as my publicity adviser and ace multi-lingual writer and journalist Catherine Edwards was awarded her degree after four years spent studying German and Italian, not only in Oxford but also such wonderful cities as Berlin and Bologna. It was lovely to see her celebrate her great success in the stunning surroundings of Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre, and to listen to an excellent speech by the Vice-Chancellor reminding us all of the remarkable 800 year history of the university before heading back to Lincoln College for further celebrations. Oxford is a unique place, and my visit on Monday will live in my memory for as long as I'm able to remember.


Monday, 20 July 2015

Oldboy - 2013 film review

Oldboy, an American film released two years ago, is directed by Spike Lee, and is evidently a re-make of a Korean movie from a decade earlier, of which I know little. The film stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, a rather unpleasant ad man whose relationship has broken down, and who treats his young daughter unfeelingly. Not someone to whom one warms instinctively, to put it mildly. His personality flaws prove to be central to the plot.

Mysteriously, Doucett is abducted and finishes up as a captive in a cell from which escape seems impossible. He is fed, and has access to a television which keeps playing a true crime show covering the apparent murder of his ex, for which he is the one and only suspect. But he is innocent of the crime. Twenty years pass, and then suddenly, he is released, and befriended by the attractive Marie (Elizabeth Olsen.) What on earth is going on?

This is a truly intriguing premise, and the story does have fascinating elements, not least the organisation behind the prison where Doucett is held, which is headed by a bizarre character played by Samuel L. Jackson. For me, the trouble is that the violent scenes in which Doucett attacks a variety of people who wish him ill have a comic book feel that rob them of intensity, and make the whole film seem unrealistic. For me, this was a major shortcoming.

Doucett is plainly the victim of a mysterious plot, and as the nature of the plot becomes increasingly clear, it also felt increasingly familiar. Oldboy isn't a bad film by any means, but it does not live up to its potential. Whether the Korean original is much superior, I simply don't know, but internet reviews suggest that it is.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Forgotten Book - Background for Murder

Today, my Forgotten Book comes from another author whose reputation owed much to the advocacy of Julian Symons in Bloody Murder. Shelley Smith was a writer he greatly admired, and his enthusiasm prompted me to read her avidly in my younger days. Suffice to say that I shared his opinion about the excellence and variety of her writing. An Afternoon to Kill, in particular, is a real tour de force.

Background for Murder was her very first book, published in 1942, and I've only recently tracked it down and read it. Whilst Smith later developed into an accomplished writer of psychological suspense, this is a genuine whodunit, with a dizzying list of suspects. But she was clearly also trying to update the classic form. The story is narrated by Jacob Chaos, a private eye who is called in (rather improbably, to be honest) by Scotland Yard, to solve a baffling murder mystery which has the local police stumped. There's a distant influence of Philip Marlowe here, although Chaos is not a tough guy, and the setting is much more genteel than the mean streets of Chandlertown.

The setting is, in fact, a hospital for the mentally ill, and one of the interesting features of the book when read today is how attitudes towards the mentally ill have changed in the last seventy odd years. They've changed markedly for the better, although in my opinion there's still a long way to go. But it seems to me that this book was quite 'progressive' in its attitudes - by the standards of the Forties. Smith was a young writer, and the plot touches on issues such as abortion and a key character who is described as "sexually gay" (I discovered that this meant the chap in question was heterosexual but promiscuous.)

The author's youth and inexperience are evident in the liveliness of the story and also one or two flaws. Overall, though, it's a very good debut, although Chaos only appeared in one more book, as Smith rapidly moved away from whodunits. Smith's real name was Nancy Hermione Bodington, nee Courlander. She wrote vividly, and it's no surprise that she later became involved in film work - she was one of those who worked on the screenplay of that successful movie Tiger Bay. Her career as a crime writer rather petered out in the Seventies, but Symons was right. She was a fine crime novelist.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Cold in July - film review

Cold in July is a film from last year which is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale. At first, it seems that the plot will follow fairly conventional lines, but soon it diverges from the predictable, and becomes increasingly intriguing and unorthodox. The result is a film that I found very watchable indeed.

Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, an ordinary guy who runs a picture framing business. One night he is woken by his wife, who has heard an intruder prowling around their home. Richard grabs his gun and shoots the man. The police tell him that the dead man was Frederick Russell, a wanted man whose father was also a career criminal. Richard is haunted by what he has done, and when he visits Russell's grave, he encounters the father, Ben, played with taciturn menace by Sam Shephard.

Richard is afraid that Ben intends to exact revenge by doing harm to his own son, and after initial scepticism, the local police are supportive. Ben enters the Danes' house, but escapes without harming the Danes' son, and Richard is told that he has left the area. But then Richard sees a picture of Frederick Russell - and his face is different from that of the man he shot. What on earth is going on?

The plot rapidly thickens, and the story takes a fresh turn when a private eye played by Don Johnson turns up on the scene. To say much more would be a spoiler, but I thought that Shephard and Johnson were terrific, and the story zips along in a satisfying, if quirky, way. I have a Lansdale novel on my shelves that I have yet to read, and this enjoyable film has encouraged me to promote it up the TBR list.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Douglas Stewart and Hard Place - guest blog

One of the great unsolved mysteries, or so it seems to me, is why there are so many crime writing attorneys in the US, and yet relatively few from Britain. Is it because we are worked much harder in the UK? Having talked to some very industrious American lawyers, I'm sure there must be some other reason! But I'm not sure what it is. 

One senior British lawyer who has also written a number of crime and thriller novels is my pal Doug Stewart (pictured outside the legendary Poisoned Pen book store in Scottsdale when he and I spent some time in Arizona together.) Doug is, like me, focusing increasingly on his fiction, and I am delighted to host this contribution from him. Do take a look at his sites, by the way, where you will find much of interest, including some attractive offers: Here is welcome news, not only about his latest book but also of a forthcoming updated version of a title in the legendary Collins Crime Club series. Over to you, Doug:: 

"What a privilege to be invited to guest-blog on Martin’s site! As fellow solicitors I can remember reading a review in a legal journal of one of his early Harry Devlin books and making contact. We have remained friends ever since. From the wings, I have watched him juggle his impressive legal career with his development into a doyen of crime and crime fiction - both underpinned by his encyclopaedic knowledge.

In contrast, having taken early retirement as senior partner of a London firm, I gambled on a future devoted mainly to writing and based in Las Vegas. Life there was great and inspired a thriller (Late Bet) but overall the bet was lost. I returned to Europe and once again mixed the law with my writing, albeit very enjoyably and only part-time. Happily however, the balance is tipping again towards my love of writing. 

With the arrival of Amazon and eBooks, not only have I got publishers for my new books but several of my backlist have already been released as eBooks. One of my favourites was Cellars’ Market published by Collins Crime Club. Not only is the original to re-appear as an eBook but the publishers want me to write a revamped version to be updated and rebranded.

Besides Hard Place, a new mystery thriller just published involving Det. Inspector Todd “Ratso” Holtom, I have two more publications before the year-end. Having foolishly spurned wise advice in my early days to continue developing a series based on the same character, I Ratso will star in another book now on the way and in a short story for inclusion in an anthology. Why “Ratso”? Because my aim is to create a brand - and given the power of Google, I wanted a name that would stick. For readers who will too quickly forget Douglas Stewart and Todd Holtom, hopefully they will not forget Ratso. That’s the theory, folks! You can email me on or find me on Twitter (@DougSBooks), Facebook (DouglasstewartBooks) and on the web at

Thanks again, Martin! And congratulations on The Golden Age of Murder, a true magnus opus."

Friday, 10 July 2015

Forgotten Book - The Ingenious Mr Stone

I first became aware of Robert Player's debut novel The Ingenious Mr Stone thanks to Julian Symons' Bloody Murder, a book which introduced me to many fine writers and novels (if The Golden Age of Murder does as much for others as Symons' book did for me, I'll be more than satisfied!)) Symons included  the novel in a disparate collection of "curiosities and singletons" whose very randomness was, for me, part of its appeal. He said the book "is notable for the evident enjoyment with which it is written, its humour, and the outrageous (as late as 1945) use of more than one disguise."

When I first read the novel, I enjoyed it, but not in fact as much as I did when I went back to it, having allowed enough time to have elapsed to have forgotten most of the story. Perhaps I'm better able to appreciate it now. As Symons noted, the structure is reminiscent of that of The Moonstone, and two of Player's three narrators are, if not totally unreliable, at least not to be trusted in all their judgements.

The story is sub-titled "The Documents in the Langdon-Miles case", and it tells, or purports to tell, a tale dating back a decade or so, to 1931, and begins with a foreword written by Adam Muir, a crusty old Scottish lawyer, speaking about the deaths, in quick succession, of two sisters. Almost half the story is told by Sophie Coppock, secretary and bursar of a girls' school, and a fervent admirer of the head teacher who was the first of the women to die. Her account is full of tantalising clue which makes little sense to begin with, until an explanation is forthcoming.

That explanation is given by an elderly woman who is Sophie's aunt, and who "describes the methods used by Lysander Stone in solving the Langdon-Miles problem". We are not, in fact, introduced to Lysander Stone until the book is half way through, and this is just one of many unusual features of a remarkably enjoyable story. Julian Symons was a good judge, and this one is definitely recommended. It's odd that Player did not return to crime fiction until the Seventies - not long before his death - but even if his other work did not quite match the brilliance of his debut, The Ingenious Mr Stone is a great example of a very clever and entertaining whodunit..

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Introducing Books

I've always enjoyed reading introductions to books. Probably the first that I remember reading, as a schoolboy, was an introduction to an edition of The Moonstone that was in the school library. I suppose I was twelve or thirteen at the time, and I was interested to learn more about the context of the story. Before long, I read a series published by Hodder of classics of mystery and adventure, which had short but pithy intros by the great Michael Gilbert.

It was Gilbert who introduced me to notable books such as Philip MacDonald's The White Crow, Anthony Berkeley's Trial and Error, Raymond Postgate's Verdict of Twelve, Henry Wade's Lonely Magdalen, and Christianna Brand's Heads You Lose. What a great series that was! I discovered many years later that some of the facts in Gilbert's intros, for instance in Verdict of Twelve, weren't accurate, but this wasn't a big deal - what mattered was that he communicated genuine enthusiasm plus an understanding of the challenges facing fellow authors. I also devoured intros to classic novels by Dickens and others. For me, reading and thinking about what was said in introductions formed part of my education.

Fast forward to the 1990s, and I was engaged, along with various other CWA members, to write intros to the Black Dagger series of reprinted crime novels - hardbacks targeted at the library market. I really enjoyed this experience, and covered quite a few books, ranging from Cornell Woolrich's The Bride Wore Black to Margot Bennett's The Man Who Didn't Fly. It was a shame when that series came to an end, but I continued to write occasional intros for other publishers when invited.

In recent times, I've written intros for The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers, and several books published (or to be published) by Harper Collins, including Ask a Policeman. And then there's the British Library programme of Crime Classics. At the time of writing, I've written 34 introductions for the BL series ,a tally that includes five anthologies. The majority of these books are still in the pipeline and will appear over the course of the next two years..

Why do I enjoy doing what some might regard as a chore? Of course, it's a privilege to have the opportunity to talk about notable books. But there's more to it than that. When I read a book, knowing that I need to write about it in an introduction, it somehow seems to sharpen my approach to it. Naturally, I don't have an equally high opinion of every single book. So how can I express my views in a clear way that is helpful to the reader, truthful and informative, yet reasonably positive? This can sometimes be a challenge, but it's actually a good way of trying to hone my writing skills.

And there's another benefit I've found in recent months. I've drawn on reminiscences from family members of deceased authors, and these have been riveting. I've met several pleasant people as  a result. And some of the intros that are yet to be published will, I like to think, cast fresh light on the life and work of some of the authors of British Library Crime Classics.

D.O.A. - 1950 film review

After being mildly entertained by one modest film noir, Impact, I returned to an old favourite, D.O.A., having previously enjoyed both the original movie and the re-make. And I found myself enjoying it all over again. There's no doubt about it, this is a classic of the genre, right from the moment that a man staggers into a police station, in order to report a murder - his own.

It's a splendidly original beginning, and a prelude to a flashback which takes up almost the whole of the film's running time, as we learn the truth about the murder. Frank Bigelow is an accountant and a notary public, and his role as a notary is crucial to the plot. This appeals to me, since many years ago I was a notary public's sidekick. Thankfully, my boss avoided Frank Bigelow's fate.

Frank is adored by his secretary, but doesn't appreciate her - this is one of the ironies of the story; he really only learns what matters in life when it is too late. He takes a holiday in San Francisco, and starts chasing women. Another irony is that this is what costs him his life. While he is chatting up a pretty stranger, a mysterious man does something that will result in Frank's death.

When Frank realises that he is the victim of a murder plot, he sets out to find whodunit. The pace is unrelenting, right to the end. Edmond O'Brien does a very good job with a tricky role as Frank, and the film benefits from a soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. A gripping film noir, which deserves its high reputation.

A Pilgrimage

I'm back home after a brief trip to celebrate my birthday which really represented a sort of personal pilgrimage. My destination was Scarborough, where my mother lived, and my parents first met, and where I spent many happy childhood holidays. Part of my plan was to stay in the same hotel as we did all those years ago - and there was a bonus, as the Clifton Hotel now publicises a fact of which I was previously unaware - that it was, in late 1917 and early 1918, the residence of Wilfred Owen, perhaps the greatest of the war poets. He even wrote some poems there, and is now suitably commemorated with a blue plaque and a display inside the hotel.

Anyone who has read my Lake District mysteries, let alone The Golden Age of Murder, will know that I'm fascinated by the past, and I enjoyed reminding myself of scenes from my younger days. Scarborough has featured in a few crime novels, I know, but none that I've actually read so far. I'm certainly tempted to set a short story there.

One of the intriguing features of the resort is that it has two bays, with different and distinctive personalities. I share my parents' love of the place: for me, there is no more appealing seaside destination in the north of England. That is so despite the fact that the climate is regularly described as "bracing", which sometimes can be rather a euphemism. And it's the only place where I've ever seen a cricket match played in fog - or a "sea fret" as the suddenly descending mists are called. Among other pleasurable things, I roamed around delightful Peasholm Park, the castle grounds, the gardens surrounding the open air theatre, and the harbour, and even took a trip around the south bay on board a pirate ship...

In keeping to the holiday resort theme, I signed Resorting to Murder in a local bookshop. And I have some happy news about that particular anthology. The British Library are just about to print another ten thousand copies of the paperback edition. After being told for so many years that "short story collections simply do not sell", I find that news extremely satisfying. Just as I did my memorable visit to the East Coast.,.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Roaming Around

One great advantage of no longer being a full-time lawyer is that I have the chance to fit into my calendar more fun trips and events than used to be the case when I was commuting five days a week. In recent times I've been making the most of this,and today's post rounds up just a few of the enjoyable events that have occupied me recently.

Let me start with Tuesday's CWA Daggers ceremony, and the award of the CWA Diamond Dagger to Catherine Aird. It was a huge pleasure for me to be with Catherine on this special occasion, and I don't believe anyone could deny that she is a worthy winner of this accolade. It's not easy for authors, however eminent, who lack a powerful publicity machine nowadays, but the outpouring of enthusiasm that has greeted news of Catherine's success illustrates that her many years of quietly producing fine mystery fiction are very, very, widely appreciated.

I've been catching up lately with a number of nice people whom I haven't seen in a long time. A week last Friday, I met up with two Italian friends I've been in touch with for about twenty years - but never actually met until now. Davide Bonori and Roberto Pinardi are delightful chaps who share my musical passion, and we met up at Burt Bacharach's concert at the Royal Festival Hall. The event was televised by the BBC, and will reach your screens before too long, no doubt. The great man starred at Glastonbury the following afternoon, and although he is now 87 years old, he was still in terrific form. I was equally glad to meet Davide and Roberto in person.

I've also had my first trip on Eurostar, spending a couple of days in Ghent. It's a picturesque city, on a par with lovely Bruges, and my son and I had a fine time seeing the sights. I've tried to conjure up a link between Ghent and detective fiction, but failed miserably. Perhaps Poirot or Simenon knew it well. Whatever. I can strongly recommend this lovely city.

Finally, I've looked round several exhibitions in London. Among other things, I popped in to the British Library shop, and signed copies of The Golden Age of Murder. I have to say that the piles of Crime Classics gladdened my heart.. They are still selling incredibly well.....

Friday, 3 July 2015

James Ellroy and The Golden Age of Murder

Do you find the heading of this post a little...counter-intuitive? I couldn't blame you if you did. I must say that I was surprised a few months ago to receive an invitation to be a guest speaker at an academic conference on the subject of "James Ellroy - Visions of Noir" and even more surprised when I was asked to talk about The Golden Age of Murder. But they were pleasant surprises, and I readily accepted. And I'm really glad I did.

The conference, which was held on Thursday, took place in Liverpool University, in a splendid library in Abercrombie Square. The organiser, Steven Powell, is an academic, and is the author of a book about James Ellroy which will appear later this year. His wife is a fellow academic and she was among the other speakers. And a keynote address came from Woody Haut, author of (among other things, including most recently a novel, with another on the way) Heartbreak and Vine. That's a very good book, by the way, and never having met Woody before, I was delighted to have the chance to chat with him and to ask him to sign my copy.

So - Martin Edwards and James Ellroy? Detection Club archivist meets Demon Dog? Well, my enthusiasm for Golden Age books should not mask the fact that my taste in crime fiction is pretty broad, and in the late 80s and early 90s I read Ellroy's Brown's Requiem and the L.A. Quartet with a great deal of enthusiasm. When he gave a talk in Manchester, I went along,and had a brief and pleasant chat with him while, you guessed it, he signed my copies of his books. After My Dark Places, I'm afraid I lost touch with Ellroy's work, and what I heard about The Cold Six Thousand, for instance, didn't encourage me to read it. But there's no doubt.that he is a significant writer.

When Steven interviewed me about The Golden Age of Murder, I didn't attempt to draw parallels between Ellroy and the likes of Freeman Wills Crofts, but I was pleased with the reaction from the attendees, and enjoyed their questions. I was also encouraged to hear that my book is not regarded with disdain by literary academics. In fact, Steven wrote a very kind blog post about it recently. One of the reasons I'm heartened by such a response is that I'm very conscious that I'm not an academic, and my book isn't an academic text. No footnotes, and endnotes that are at least as much about fun facts as relentless detail about sources. I wasn't aiming at an academic readership at all, but it's good to know that even those whose approach to literature is rather more sophisticated than mine can find plenty to enjoy in the story of the Detection Club's early days.

The day ended splendidly with a meal in one of Liverpool's snazzier restaurants. I was glad to chat with people from distant parts - a German expert on Ellroy who kindly presented me with a copy of her book about his work, and a Brazilian academic who is another Ellroy expert. My warmest congratulations to the Powells for organising it all so well, and I look forward to talking more about Steven's book in the autumn.

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Late Pig

The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham was first published in 1937, and I suppose there is room for debate as to whether it really qualifies as a Forgotten Book. After all, Allingham's reputation has survived much better than that of many Golden Age writers, and the Margery Allingham Society is a flourishing body, with an excellent journal and a range of activities for members. What I can say is that this is a short novel (it began life as a paperback original, and a UK hardback edition didn't appear for more than a quarter of a century) which definitely deserves to be remembered. It offers more entertainment than many much longer efforts.

An unusual feature of the book is that it's narrated by Albert Campion. An ambitious move on Allingham's part, I think, because Great Detectives aren't naturally suited to recounting their own cases - Sherlock Holmes seems to me to have been a noticeably less effective narrator than Dr Watson, for instance. It's maddening enough when a sleuth (Poirot, for example) declines to tell his sidekick whom he suspects and why. The risk of frustrating the reader is much greater when the detective is actually telling the story. Christie was wise, I think, not to have Poirot or Miss Marple act as narrators. Perhaps Allingham was experimenting -she did not repeat this particular experiment in another novel. And yet here, I think, she gets away with it, and does so rather stylishly.

A mysterious unsigned missive persuades Campion to attend the funeral of the late and unlamented "Pig" Peters, with whom he was at school. But the plot really starts to thicken five months later, when Campion returns to the splendidly named village of Kepesake. There has been another death - but this time, once again, the deceased is Pig Peters. What on earth is going on?

This is a splendid village mystery, neatly plotted and with plenty of twists. It's a very good example of Allingham's technical skill as a writer - she was able to vary her approach with much more flair and success than most Golden Age novelists, and this is, surely, one of the reasons why her work has lasted so well. I enjoyed The Case of the Late Pig - and the TV version, starring Peter Davison as Campion, which I saw some time ago, isn't at all bad, either.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward - review

In Bitter Chill is a first novel by Sarah Ward, best known hitherto for her excellent blog Crime Pieces. The book is published by Faber, which is in itself a hallmark of quality, and I must say that I think it's a very satisfying book, judged by any standards, let alone those applicable to a debut. I should also say that Sarah is someone I've known and liked for several years, but I would not enthuse about this novel in the way that I do unless I genuinely found it to my taste.

The story is set in a fictional Derbyshire town, Bampton. Derbyshire is a wonderful county, one I know and love (I've also had the mixed blessing of supporting the county's cricket team since I was young; this has at least proved character-building, given the team's propensity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory...) Until now, Stephen Booth, a very capable author indeed, has been the leading writer of Derbyshire crime, but Sarah's writing is in the same league. They both produce well-crafted traditional mysteries with credible police officers and good descriptions of landscape..

I'm conscious that one has to be wary of comparing one writer with another, but the other comparison that did cross my mind when reading this book was with Ann Cleeves. Ann has a gift for combing her well-plotted mysteries with sound evocation of character and place, a gift that amazingly was long under-estimated before the massive success of Vera and Shetland caused her to receive her well-deserved international acclaim.I don't expect Sarah to have to wait as long for widespread recognition. She is, like Ann, someone whose work demonstrates an understanding of human frailty, but also a good deal of compassion, a combination that is very appealing to many readers.

The plot involves a "cold case" in a cold climate. Back in 1978, two girls went missing, and only one returned. A death in the present day causes the local police to start reconsidering what happened. The kidnapping of the girls might seem reminiscent of Brady and Hindley at work, but the storyline is very different from the tragedy of the Moors Murders, though it is certainly not without bleakness. A really good read.