Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Sleeping Car to Trieste - 1948 film review

Sleeping Car to Trieste, first screened in the aftermath of the Second World War, when international tensions were still running high, is a remake of a film called Rome Express, written by Clifford Grey, which I haven't seen. But it has a real freshness even now, and I found it very entertaining indeed, even if it didn't give viewers much of a picture of Trieste itself, since all the action is done and dusted by the time the train gets there!

The story begins with a robbery and a shooting. A diary is stolen from an unidentified embassy in Paris; the thief is in cahoots with a woman (Jean Kent) who fears that the diary, if it falls into the wrong hands, will lead to revolution. Unfortunately, the pair have opted to conspire with a villain (played by Alan Wheatley, better known as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood) who proceeds to run off with it, and take the train to Trieste. They follow him, but find it difficult to figure out which compartment he's staying in.

The strength of the screenplay by Allan Mackinnon lies in the clever use of a range of characters on board the train who each play a part in an increasingly convoluted storyline. The diary is a Macguffin in the finest Hitchcockian tradition. The guy who has taken the diary hides it, only to be forced to move out of his compartment. A lawyer who is on the train with his girlfriend finds himself mixed up in it all, and the tension mounts before, eventually, murder is done.

There are plenty of nice comic touches, and John Paddy Carstairs' direction reminded me of Hitchcock's. He keeps the action going, and the use of comic minor chatacters, such as the lawyer's tedious and thick-skinned old friend (David Tomlinson) and the long-suffering secretary (Hugh Burden) of a vain and selfish author (Finlay Currie). So it's a good cast, and an even better story. Most enjoyable.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Long Arm of the Law

We tend to associate classic crime fiction with amateur sleuths, Wimsey, Sheringham, Marple, and company. In reality, though, police stories abounded during the first half of the twentieth century. The "police procedural" may be thought of as a concept of the Fifities onwards, but Freeman Wills Crofts and others were writing books about meticulous police investigations long before the days of Lawrence Treat, Ed McBain, and Maurice Proctor.

Classic police stories are celebrated in my latest anthology in the British Library's Crime Classics series. The Long Arm of the Law charts the development of the police story over more than half a century. The first entry is a very obscure one, "The Mystery of Chernholt" by Alice and Claude Askew. And we come right up to the (relatively) modern era with Sergeant Cluff featuring in "The Moorlanders" by Gil North.

I really enjoyed putting this book together. It is, believe it or not, the third of my anthologies that the British Library have published this year alone - and there's one more still to come! - and I like to think that this reflects an increasing interest in short crime fiction. Books of this kind, though I say it myself are a great way of discovering new writers and new detective characters. Anthologies are always a mixed bag, and I do aim for quite a high degree of variety, but there's sure to be something for every crime fan - or so I hope.

This book contains, it's fair to say, a higher number of obscure stories than my other anothologies in the series, although several of the authors are well-known names - Crofts, Henry Wade, Christianna Brand, John Creasey, and Nicholas Blake among them. My researches benefited enormously from help given by a number of experts, including John Cooper, Jamie Sturgeon, and Nigel Moss. I leave it to readers to judge the result, but I'm optimistic that this book will provide crime fans with a great deal of entertainment, and some truly fascinating new discoveries.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Forgotten Book - Trent's Own Case

Unlike many authors associated with Golden Age detective fiction, Edmund Clerihew Bentley was far from prolific. Yet his impact on the genre was immense. Trent's Last Case is seen by many people (including me) as the effective catalyst for the development of the classic whodunit after the First World War, and when Bentley's old friend G.K. Chesterton died, Bentley was a popular choice to succeed him, and to become the second President of the Detection Club. This more or less coincided with the publication of Trent's Own Case, which records Philip Trent's long-awaited return to the fray of detection.

Bentley's short stories about Trent were also collected in a volume entitled Trent Intervenes. But although Trent's Last Case has been relatively easy to find over the years, the other two Trent books have been less widely available. Now Harper Collins have reissued all three books together as part of their Detective Story Club imprint.

I feel confident that crime fans will be delighted by this initiative, though I should declare my own involvement - I have written a new introduction to Trent's Own Case. This commission caused me to re-read the book recently, and in so doing I found I revised my original opinion of it somewhat. I read it first as a teenager, expecting something similar to the first Trent book. It's much better, though, to judge the book on its own merits,not least because it was actually a collaboration - Bentley co-wrote the novel with his friend H. Warner Allen, and the storyline features Warner Allen's own detective character, the wine merchant Mr Clerihew (who was named in Bentley's honour). It's a well-made story, and still very readable.

In The Golden Age of Murder, I discuss the "Trent Dinner" held in 1936 to celebrate the book's publication, and one of my most precious possessions is a copy of the first edition signed by those who attended the dinner. I also talk about this in a little more detail in the "Collecting Crime" section on my website.. The addition of this book, and the two other Trent titles, to the Detective Story Club list, is very welcome.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

In the footsteps of Agatha and James Joyce

I've been intrigued by the city and sea port of Trieste since reading Andrew Eames' excellent The 8.55 to Baghdad, in which he follows the route taken by Agatha Christie across Europe to the Middle East. It sounded a fascinating place, and now I've been lucky enough to spend a few days there, meeting up with my well-travelled daughter and her boyfriend, I can report that I found it even more appealing than I expected from Eames' description. Was it just that I was escaping the rainy British summer for intense sunshine, interrupted only by one thunderstorm, the most dramatic I've ever experienced? No, it's a really interesting place, the product of a varied history; its strategic significance meant that it changed hands several times, though it's been part of Italy for the past seventy years, as well as for a period before then.
Christie wasn't the only literary figure to be associated with Trieste. Joyce, Kafka, and Rikle are among the others, and Joyce's statue (clutching a book) is to be found on the bridge over a remarkably short canal in the midst of the old quarter, where the architecture hints at the cosmopolitan influences on Trieste's past.

There's a lot to see in Trieste, and I enjoyed a wide range of sights, including the old Roman Theatre. I also came across a second hand bookshop which had a copy of Murder off Miami, the first "murder dossier" by Dennis Wheatley and J.G.Links in the window - the Italian version. Sadly, the shop was closed, and it was my last evening there, so I never got to find out how much they wanted for it. Quite a bit, I guess! The old cathedral and castle on the hill above the city centre are well worth a short climb, and there are plenty of other sights within a fairly short walk.
A bus ride away is the Risiera di San Sabba, an old rice factory which the Nazis converted into a bizarre and horrific concentration camp. You can still see the prison cells, the death cell, and the site of the crematorium. A museum on the site tells the story of what happened there. It's nothing like as well-known as Auschwitz, but I found the experience deeply moving and thought-provoking.

Further out of Trieste, there are some fabulous places to go. They include the Grotta Gigante, a massive underground cave where we took a guided tour, and Napoleon's Way, where the walk from the obelisk at Opicina to the village of Prosecco takes the route followed by Bonaparte's troops, and offers fantastic views. Best of all perhaps were the gardens and castle of Miramare, which were hugely impressive. Well worth braving the vagaries of the local transport system for. All in all, a memorable trip, which followed an enjoyable day in Milan, and a visit to the amazing cathedral. But what I really didn't expect was that storm, which for close to two hours provided a light show that put the Northern Lights in the shade. Amazing.

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Riverside Murder - 1935 film

Having recorded The Riverside Murder when it was screened by Talking Pictures, I was astonished to find, once I got round to watching it, that the source material was S.A. Steeman's excellent novel Six Dead Men. It has to be said that the script alters the storyline very considerably, and not just because the action is switched to England. But the writing is pretty slick, and that's no surprise, considering that the writer was a good crime novelist in his own right, Selwyn Jepson.

A wealthy financier is murdered by a mysterious gunman, and it soon becomes clear that present at the scene were (at least) two men with a very good reason to kill him. The tontine that features in the original story is, here, turned into a "pact", which means that a number of individuals have motives for murder.

The official detective work is undertaken by affable Inspector Winton (Philip Sydney), aided and abetted by Sergeant McKay (none other than Alastair Sim - apparently this was his first film appearance). But their investigation is interrupted by an intrepid and cheeky young woman who wants to make her name as a crime reporter - this isn't the only film of the 30s to feature such a character, and here she's played by Judy Gunn. Quite a few familiar crime story tropes make an appearance (the threat to take a cop off the case, leading to him to plead for just a few more hours, etc.) But they are handled in a light, entertaining way.

The suspects include one character played by Tom Helmore, who almost a quarter of a century later would make quite an impact as Gavin Elster in Hitchcock's classic Vertigo. The body count rises rapidly as Jepson's script breezes along to a pleasing conclusion. I must say I found it all very enjoyable: a real find.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Forgotten Book - Unexpected Night

I've been prompted to take a fresh look at the work of American whodunit writer Elizabeth Daly after listening to Sarah Ward talking about Daly's books on a couple of occasions recently. Sarah chose Daly as one of her authors to remember at Crimefest, and also discussed her work in some depth at Bodies from the Library. She also suggested that it helps to get a clear picture of the life of Daly's amateur sleuth, Henry Gamadge, if one starts with Daly's first book in the series.

This raises a point that I find very interesting. A great many people I talk to say that they like to begin a series at the beginning. I can understand why. Characters and relationships can sometimes make more sense than if one plunges into a series when it's already very well-established. When my Lake District Mysteries are sold at events, The Coffin Trail, the first in the series, generally sells best. Yet there are downsides to beginning at the beginning. A good author will want to improve, and sometimes a first book will spend quite a lot of time setting the scene. Later books may be more impressive.

I've just read Daly's debut, Unexpected Night, set in 1939, and published a year later, when Daly was already over 60. Compared to most authors working in the Golden Age tradition - and Daly clearly was - she was a late starter, though she did go on to have a long and successful career. This one i's a decent whodunit with a nice, if well-telegraphed, plot twist, and it introduces Gamadge as an affable, youngish expert in manuscripts.

Overall, however, I think it's fair to say that Daly was one of those writers who honed her technique over the years, and some of her later books represent a significant advance on this one. I felt that the basic set-up, about a young but sickly man who comes into a fortune on his 21st birthday was very contrived, and that the pool of suspects was not the most interesting. Gamadge, too, though likeable, is not truly memorable. I'd rate this one as worth a read, but I think Daly's later books tend to be better.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Any Golden Age fan is bound to be drawn to Anthony Horowitz's recent novel, Magpie Murders. It's an example of metaficiton, in which Horowitz combines a capable pastiche of a Christie-style whodunit with a contemporary mystery, and a dollop of satire about the publishing business. There are plenty of jokes (the last Horowitz novel I read, The Killing Joke, also gave his wit a pleasing showcase) and there's ingenuity in abundance.

The first half of the book comprises a novel set in the year Horowitz was born, 1955. A cleaner has died in rather mysterious circumstances, and soon her employer, Sir Magnus Pye, is brutally murdered. There is no shortage of motives or suspects - but shortly before the climax, the story comes to a sudden halt. We are then transported to the present, and the publishing. Alan Conway, author of the story, has died, having apparently committed suicide - and the last two chapters of his novel seem to be missing.

Most of the rest of the story is narrated by Conway's editor, Susan, who begins to suspect that in fact Conway was murdered. Once again, she discovers a variety of people with good cause to wish that the author was dead. But which of them is guilty? There's a "least likely person" explanation that is pleasing, even if the motivation is thin. And then, at the end of the story, we are given the solution to the mystery in Conway's novel - and, once more, a suitably unlikely culprit is unmasked..

I like Horowitz's writing very much. He has a real gift for entertainment, as evidenced by his many successes with TV screenplays (which earn more than one mention in the book; I see this not as showing off, but rather as an illustration of his teasing sense of humour) as well as by his fiction. The first half of the book is, at times, rather slow-moving, but this is explained by the need to plant a range of pleasing clues. It's all very cleverly and agreeably handled. An interestingly original take on classic crime fiction which I was very glad to read.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Solace - 2015 film review

The script of Solace, a film first shown a couple of years back, apparently began life as a sequel to Se7en, one of the best serial killer movies, and certainly ground-breaking in 1995. Things changed radically along the way, and although director Afonso Poyart acknowledges the influence of the earlier film, and also of Silence of the Lambs, he claims that Solace is not a serial killer film, but aout much more than that, talking about life and death and raising "interesting moral dilemmas".

The film benefits from the casting of Anthony Clancy as John Hopkins, a psychic who works with the FBI, but whose daughter has died from leukaemia. A pair of cops played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Abbie Cornish persuade him, against his will, to lend a hand when a series of baflling yet apparently connected murders take place.

The link between the crimes emerges,and Colin Farrell comes into the story, playing Charles Ambrose, whose motives are central to the moral dilemmas Poyart mentions. Hopkins and Farrell are both excellent actors, whose work I've enjoyed numerous times, and here again they do a good job. But they are limited by the material in the script.

For all Poyart's laudable ambition, this seemed to me very much like one more in a long line of flashily put together serial killer movies, with Clancy's psychic gifts providing a distinctive but increasingly irritating gimmick. The story and the performances kept me watching, but the truth is that the serial killer genre has been with us for so long now that greater originality is required than is on offer here. And despite a final twist, it's not a patch on Se7en.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Forgotten Book - The Blackmailers

Harper Collins' Detective Story Club imprint is by no means confined to Golden Age detective fiction. Hugh Conway and Anna K. Greene are among the significant Victorian crime writers represented in the series. Another is Emile Gaboriau, creator of Monsieur Lecoq, a prototype of the Great Detective, and a master of disguise.

Richard Dalby's introduction contains useful background .The book was first published as Dossier No. 113 in 1867, and has also appeared in English translation as File No. 113. Apparently this original version ran to a massive 145,000 words. Collins commissioned a new translation by Ernest Tristan, which cut the word cut roughly by half while retaining the essentials of the storyline intact. The abbreviated version was called The Blackmailers, and this is the version of the story that has been reissued.

The story gets off to a very good start. A bank is robbed, and only two men appear to have access to the safe that the criminal(s) broke into. Which of them is guilty? Or has something else happened? The official police detective, nicknamed "the Squirrel", is keen but inclined to follow false scents. Before long, the rather enigmatic Lecoq becomes involved, sometimes in disguise.

After a suspenseful build-up, we then move into an extended flashback which charts events of the past which led up to the crime .Despite the (very wise) decision to cut the story in half, this melodramatic storytelling seems to go on forever, and my interest began to wane. This, the third case for Lecoq, is historically significant, but the structural weaknesses show that authors were still trying to figure out how best to tell a mystery story. Conan Doyle experienced similar difficulties with his own longer stories about Sherlock Holmes, but Holmes is an inherently more fascinating character than Lecoq. But, just possibly, without Lecoq there might not have been a Sherlock Holmes.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The CWA Dagger Shortlists

I've returned home after a brief and hectic trip to London that involved a variety of meetings (one of them in the historic Reform Club, which I've never been inside before), a pleasant book-signing session in Hatchards, and finally the CWA Daggers shortlist announcements reception at Waterstone's in Piccadilly.

To deal with the personal stuff first, I'm thrilled to say that my story "Murder and its Motives" has been shortlisted for the  CWA Short Story Dagger. This is my fifth appearance on a Dagger list, and it's the third short story of mine to reach this particular shortlist. "Test Drive" did so twelve years ago, and three years later, "The Bookbinder's Apprentice" earned me the Dagger. So I'm naturally very happy.

Happy, too, to see that two other stories from the Detection Club anthology Motives for Murder appeared on the list - those by Michael Ridpath and Len Tyler. What a happy book that has proved to be. I'd also like to say how pleased I am to see Leye Adenie on the shortlist; I've been following his career with keen interest ever since we got to know each other last year. The shortlist also features the legendary James Sallis and Ovidia Yu.

Overall, the event went extremely well, and the attendance was very good. I was especially pleased to meet that fine writer Louise Penny for the first time. The success of the event was due to good work on the part of several people, but I'd like to pay special tribute to Mike Stotter, the CWA Daggers Liaison Officer, an unsung hero of the CWA, who does great work year after year in ensuring that all goes smoothly with the independent judging process. It's that process that ensures the high reputation of the Daggers the world over.


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Hangman's Wharf - 1950 film review

Hangman's Wharf is a very good title, I think. It's the name of a short 1950 black and white film, directed by Cecil H. Williamson. It began life as a BBC radio serial written by John Belden, about whom I have been able to find out nothing. I almost wondered if it was a pseudonym adopted by Francis Durbridge, but there's no evidence of that.

Yet there are one or two Durbridgesque features to the storyline, including one of his favourite devices, the Enigmatic Message which lures our hero to an assignation at the Deserted House where, surprise, surprise, a corpse is waiting for him. There's also a touch of light-heartedness among the mayhem which reminded me of Durbrdge. Perhaps Belden was a disciple.

Dr David Galloway (John Witty) is a talented G.P. with hardly any patients- those were the days! An idealistic, he's opened a surgery in Shadwell, but hasn't endeared himself to the locals. When he gets a message calling him out to an accident on board a boat at Hangman's Wharf, he sets off only to find that he's been misled. But he bumps into a sinister rough-neck and a posh chap who send him packing. Then a warning shout from a young woman (Genine Graham) alerts him to the fact that someone is trying to kill him by dropping a barrel on his head.

The woman is a pretty young journalist, and he and she go to the police. But the affable inspector (Campbell Singer) doesn't beleive their story, and soon it becomes clear that someone is trying to frame the doctor for murder. The plot is nothing special, but it moves along at a decent pace. Singer is the only member of the cast with whom I was familiar, but I thought Genine Graham made the most of a limited role as the doc's love interest. I'm surprised she didn't become better known.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Harrogate Reflections

I arrived home yesterday afternoon from Harrogate after four fun-filled days at the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. So fun-filled, in fact, that I fear Friday's Forgotten Book was indeed forgotten! Never mind, it will return this week...

This year I spent more time than usual on writing business, as Harrogate offers a great opportunity to meet up with one's agent and publishers, and so on. But there was still a chance to catch up with friends such as Ann Cleeves and Ali Karim (who took the photo of me with Ann). I also met a good many readers - not least several from the Lake District and my home turf in Cheshire.

I've been on panels at Harrogate in the past, but this year for the first time I was asked to chair a panel - Double Indemnity: the theme was not the James M. Cain novel of that name, but rather lawyers who have become crime writers. Denise Mina (never actually a lawyer, but she did attend Glasgow Law School), Alafair Burke, Steve Cavanagh and Matthew Hall proved to be excellent panellists, and the discussion flowed nicely.

In the signing tent after the panel, I was pleased to meet not only a London crime editor who hails from my home village of Lymm but also a mutual friend of a great pal of mine from long ago student days. A little later I met up with the delightful Roz Dudley, whom I first met when she was performing in one of Joy Swift's brilliant murder mystery weekends (playing the part of a psychopathic serial killer, I should add). And it was good to have a chat with Vera herself, Brenda Blethyn. These unexpected encounters really are part of the pleasure of conventions.

I was invited to several publishers' parties, and these provide an opportunity to catch up with people in the writing business whom one might see only once in a blue moon if one is not London-based. As the wine flowed, there were plenty of fascinating conversations. The northern chapter of the CWA also had an informal get together with CWA colleagues from other parts of the country,  and pleasingly the turn-out exceeded our most optimistic expectations.

One of the parties was hosted by Harper Collins, and they'd organised an exhibition of correspondence between Agatha  Christie and Billy Collins that I found both interesting and informative. Of my various enjoyable get togethers, one was with a rare book dealer who told me about a notable discovery of his which I hope to talk about more in a future blog post.

All in all, a great weekend. The weather wasn't as kind as usual, with a mini-monsoon on Saturday. But even so, the clouds had a silver lining. Following encouragement from an American editor, I had a bit of time to myself to think out a new short story, featuring a new detective character who might just investigate further cases in due course. I even wrote the first few lines last night..


Thursday, 20 July 2017

Grasmere and the Lake District Mysteries

I've not said much on this blog lately about the Lake District Mysteries. But if you're thinking that my attention has shifted away from them, as a result of my focus on The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, nothing could be further from the truth. My hope has always been that the work I do on classic fiction will have a beneficial impact on my contemporary work, and there are signs that this is what's happening. The latest of those signs is that Amazon have again included The Coffin Trail in their summer promotion. You can get the Kindle version for just 99 pence. If you haven't sampled the series before, I do hope you'll be tempted.
As it happens, I'm just back from a brief but pleasurable trip to the Lakes. It was a dual purpose visit. First, I was invited to talk to a group of visiting Americans. They were members of a party led by Kathy Ackley and Nicky Godfrey-Evans, whom I've known for a number of years, and they were a great group. A special bonus for me was that among them were those terrific crime writers Charles and Caroline Todd. In recent years, the Todds happen to have shared some happy moments with me at awards ceremonies both here and in the US, and it was great to spend time with them again - not forgetting Linda and DeAnna. A fun evening..
The location of the get-together was Grasmere, a village as charming in reality as its reputation suggests. Each of the Lake District Mysteries is set in a different part of the National Park, but I've not yet sent Hannah and Daniel to Grasmere, partly because it seemed a bit of an obvious step, and I wanted to explore one or two less familiar locations. But I do like Grasmere very much, and it may be time that it featured in one of my books. Meanwhile, I was very glad to sign books in Sam Read, the lovely local bookshop. What I think may be happening in quite a few cases, by the way, is that readers who sample my books (and those by others) as ebooks are starting to buy traditional print copies in the shops. Several people have told me that they've done this, and it does seem interesting that perhaps more of a crossover may develop between online and actual book retailing than has been thought likely in the past.
Another terrific bookshop, Fred Holdsworth's of Ambleside (above), featured on my itinerary on my way home. Again, it's good to see a proud independent bookshop really thriving, and playing an important part in the local community, and I was delighted to catch up over a coffee with Steve, the owner.  And as I toured the area, with research for the next novel in mind, I took in Stagshaw Gardens, Holehird Gardens, Kendal, and Sedbergh. It's a lovely part of the world, and now of course the Lake District is becoming a UNESCO World Hetitage site. About time too!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Catriona McPherson - guest blog

Catriona McPherson is a highly successful Scottish author who has become very popular in both sides of the Atlantic. I've enjoyed meeting her at several conventions, and to celebrate the publication of her latest novel, Dandy Gilver & a Spot of Toil and Trouble, I'm delighted to welcome her to this blog with this guest post.

"For the first ten years of my writing career I lived in Scotland, producing books set in Scotland (and one in Leeds) that were published in London.  It was so easy. Then, in 2010, I moved to California, added a New York publisher and everything got much more complicado. 

For a start, research has to be squashed into a month or so every summer when I’m back in the old country. And that month might be after I’ve turned in the book.  Also, I haven’t experienced a British winter for seven years now and need to keep a post-it note on my monitor saying “It’s probably  raining!” just to remind me. I can feel sympathy draining away, though, so I’ll move on to the big issue.

The big issue, of course, is the deep chasm in our common language.

One US editor now produces three lists of problem words:

Cultural references. We can usually kill these in the contemporary novels because no book lives or dies on mentions of Ribena, Barnardos or Heartbeat, now does it? In the 1930s, it’s a bit tougher. Pantomines, Punch and Judy shows, the Regional Programme . . . there’s a lot of historical texture in those social details.

Standard differences. These have to be managed with some finesse because fictional British people cannot speak American English. British characters just can’t say “pea coat” when they mean “donkey jacket”, or “stucco” when they mean “harling”.  (The answer is usually that the character wears a duffel coat and the house is whitewashed.)  Pudding is always a problem, though. Dandy Gilver can’t say “dessert” (My dear!) And clothes are a blimmin’ nightmare. Jumpers and vests, knickers and pants. A novel set in a naturist colony would be a great relief. I do get a bit shirty (no pun intended) because my enjoyment of Lisa Scottoline’s legal thrillers isn’t dented by the fact that every Philly law office seems to have a “credenza” and I’ve got no clue what one is.

Then there’s the non-standard dialect breenging in, all bolshy, turning the editor crabbit enough to start a stooshie. Here the London editor sometimes gangs up on me with the US editor. We slug it out in an unfair fight. I try to keep as many as I can, especially in the Dandy Gilver novels, because she’s English and can translate for the readers. The editor usually gives a lot of ground but insists on a wee-ectomy. That’s a fair point. It’s quite startling how often Scottish people use the word “wee”, and rarely to mean “small”.  I got 86 uses down to 35 last time.

“Wee” aside, I’m interested to know whether readers mind a smattering of unintelligible dialect in books? Or do you even – this would be a great weapon for the next fight – relish it? 

And if anyone knows what a credenza is, do tell me.".

Friday, 14 July 2017

Forgotten Book- Death By Two Hands

My Forgotten Book for today is another by Peter Drax. Death By Two Hands was first published in 1937, and until Dean Street Press reprinted six Drax books, it was the only one I'd ever found in a first edition. Like Murder on the High Seas, it's unusual for a crime story of the 30s, because it centres exclusively on working class people, with not a country mansion or secret passage in sight.

A young woman called Alma Robinson leaves her home town to live with her disreputable uncle, and becomes a pawn in a criminal game. A dodgy dealer called Rivers hires the ruthless Spike Morgan to steal a consignment of fox furs. Spike and his sidekicks carry out the plan, but things go wrong, and a man is killed. Soon there is another death...

Drax describes the crime with a realism that we tend to associate more with post-war novels than those of the 30s. He's also pretty convincing when it comes to police procedure. Chance plays a part in the investigation, but the story unfolds in a believable way, and there's a small twist right at the end. The treatment of criminals and their activities is much more convincing than was often the case during the Golden Age.

I'd also like to mention the quality of Drax's writing. He has a very good turn of phrase, and his observations are perceptive and convincing. His evocation of character is excellent, and the book is also good on urban settings. Drax's world is very far removed from Mayhem Parva. I'm surprised these novels weren't better known in the 30s, and I'm delighted that Dean Street Press have reprintged them.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The House Across the Lake - 1954 film review

I didn't know what to expect when I settled down to watch a British crime film from 1954. But The House Across the Lake turned out to be set around Windermere, and featured a struggling crime writer as the conflicted protagonist. Needless to say, this premise grabbed my attention right away!

Alex Nicol plays Mark Kendrick, an American writer based in the UK (for unexplained reasons) who rents a place in the Lakes as he tries to meet a deadline for his latest book. He encounters a blonde femme fatale, also played by an American, Hillary Brooke. She happens to be married to a rich man - played (rather to my amazement) by Sid James, in a rare straight role. She's well-known for dallying with other men, and Kendrick befriends the husband but becomes besotted by the wife - rather surprisingly, since the husband's daughter from an earlier marriage, played by Susan Stephen, seems much more appealing.

Anyway, we are in classic film noir territory here. The storyline owes a great deal to Double Indemnity, although it's based on a book called High Wray by Ken Hughes, who directs the film (and later directed many others, including Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang). Although it's not very original, it's well done, at least until the very rushed finale, which I found anti-climactic.

There's fun to be had in spotting the other cast members -including Joan Hickson, Paul Carpenter, John Sharp, and Alan Wheatley (later famed as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood). I hoped the titular house would prove to be Wray Castle, which I enjoyed visiting a few years back, but it wasn't to be. However, I did enjoy this short film. Definitely worth watching. Why was it called Heat Wave when released in the US? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Azure Hand - guest post by Cally Phillips

As a result of my writing activities, I've received many fascinating "out of the blue" contacts from people from all parts of the world. These are often not only enjoyable but also informative. So it was when I was contacted by Cally Phillips last year. She told me about a book and author I'd never heard of. I was tempted to explore further, and I'm very glad I did. The book in question was The Azure Hand, which thanks to Cally's enterprise is now being republished. I've invited Cally to tell the story herself:

"The Azure Hand was first published on 24th July 1917, one of several posthumous works by the writer Samuel Rutherford Crockett, who died in April 1914.  Crockett is better known, where he is known at all any more, as the writer of stirring ‘boys own’ stories of history, adventure, romance set in rural Scotland, France or Spain.  Once dismissed as ‘Kailyard’ he has more recently been seen as coming from the Stevensonian tradition.  

In his lifetime he lay claim to  more than sixty published works of fiction and he is hard to pin down because over the twenty plus years  of his writing career he adapted and adopted different styles in order to keep in step with the changing fashions of popular fiction.  It was not always a successful tactic and the fact that The Azure Hand was never published in his life-time suggests it was one of his ‘failures’.   However, with a centenary edition now due out, a new generation of readers are able to judge for themselves exactly what kind of book this is.

As a detective fiction novel it is unusual, though not unique among Crockett’s work.  He started experimenting with this form – via ‘sensationalist’ fiction in the early 1900s, but he never seemed to quite ‘hit the mark’ for the market at the time.  Looking back with the benefit of a century of hindsight however, we can see that he was in fact being quite experimental both in form and content and The Azure Hand dating well before the Golden Age of Crime presages it in some ways.  It is, to quote Martin Edwards a:   ‘very modern take on fictional detection.  It shows a determination to pick up some of the then popular tropes (clues, footprints etc) and do something relatively fresh with them.’

In 1917 Crockett’s widow, chasing an income from his royalties, persuaded Hodder and & Stoughton (with whom he had a long and fruitful connection) to publish The Azure Hand. Being during the First World War it was a small print run and the quality of the publication was poor – and it soon went out of print into obscurity. 

Ayton Publishing Limited was set up in 2012 with the explicit aim of promoting works by and about Crockett. In 2014 the 32 Volume Galloway Collection was published to commemorate the centenary of his death.  This was followed in 2015 by The Rainbow Crockett series (seven of his works for children) and since then sundry other works by and about him have been published and re-published. It seemed only fitting to bring out The Azure Hand on the centenary of its original publication date.

You can purchase the Ayton Publishing centenary edition in paperback direct from online for the discounted price of £9.99.

To find out more about the life and work of S.R.Crockett you can visit the Galloway Raiders website which is the home of the S.R.Crockett literary society and a great place to start your exploration of all things Crockett related." 

Monday, 10 July 2017

Foreign Bodies

I've been putting the finishing touches to a British Library anthology that I'm really excited about. This is Foreign Bodies, a collection of classic crime in translation that includes several real gems. I'll be saying more about this book in the coming weeks - it's due to be published in October - but certainly foreign crime fiction is very much in my mind just at the moment.

I've been doing some research on the history of crime fiction in non-English speaking languages, and this has reintroduced me to some very interesting authors and stories. And also to one of the great characters of the genre. Eugene Francois Vidocq was not a crime novelist, but his Memoirs were a big success in Britain as well as in Europe, and he influenced plenty of major writers whose work touched on crime. Coincidentally, I visited his birthplace, Arras, in north eastern France while on a brief trip a couple of weeks ago. I really liked Arras, and as well as visiting the citadel, explored the belfry and the mysterious tunnels beneath the main square. A charming town, though I think they could make more of the Vidocq connection.

The reason I got to Arras was that I'd figured out that a trip on Eurostar from St Pancras to Lille takes less time than a train ride from nearby Euston to my local stations, Warrington and Runcorn. So it was time to visit Lille, and I'm glad I did. Vauban's citadel is well worth a look, as is the (relatively modern) belfry and the rather unusual cathedral. Lille also boasts a Sherlock Holmes pub...

In some ways, the highlight of the very short trip. was a visit across the border, to Tournai in Belgium. I loved the triangular main square, and the fascinating architecture all around. The cathedral is magnificent, although currently undergoing major renovations. And I also had time to read a couple of Golden Age books that will feature in Forgotten Books before too long.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Birthday after the Blog Tour

On Friday I celebrated another birthday with a trip to North Wales. There are those who argue that once you get to a certain age, you shouldn't fuss over birthdays, but I take the opposite view. It's good to have a chance to reflect on the past twelve months, and perhaps to look ahead, if not too far ahead. So following my custom, I enjoyed my day out, and along the way mused on a hugely enjoyable year.

The icing on the birthday cake was the news that the British Library are already reprinting The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, only a few days after publication. Very gratifying, as are the early reviews - so I felt I was entitled to a day off from writing! I'd been very busy penning guest posts for the British and American bloggers who were kind enough to host my blog tour, and I was ready for a break.
I love boat trips, and for the first time in my life, I took a trip on the River Conway - both down river, and then out into the mouth of the river, where the views gave me a fresh perspective on a familiar and very lovely landscape. Conwy Castle, which I first visited as a small child, is of course the highlight, and the old town is full of interesting nooks and crannies. It's part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so.

Then it was off to Anglesey, and a tour round another old castle, also part of the World Heritage Site - Beaumaris. I've seen it from the outside plenty of times,, but I'd never ventured inside before, and was duly impressed. Next stop was the seaside, and Benllech Bay, before the return trip to Lymm, and an excellent meal out. Great fun. And the next day, I was back at work on the new book, honest!.


Friday, 7 July 2017

Forgotten Book - Neck and Neck

Leo Bruce's books are much admired by Golden Age enthusiasts such as Barry Pike, who also once put together a pleasing volume of his short stories, but they are no longer well-known in the UK. There were some reprints in the US some years back, but in his native country, Bruce has been neglected for far too long. I've previously praised his excellent debut, Case for Three Detectives, in particular. Today I'm turning my attention to the final Sergeant Beef novel, published in 1950, Neck and Neck.

It's difficult to say too much about this book without a major plot spoiler, but I'll try to skirt round the central device. As usual, the story is narrated by Lionel Townsend, but in this book there's a difference - he and his brother are potential suspects in connection with the murder of his wealthy aunt. A third potential suspect has, in fact, been disinherited, and in any event has an alibi for the time of the aunt's death. So it's all rather baffling. Is Lionel's brother really guilty? Or is there some unknown motive?

Beef is also working on a death in the Cotswolds. A rascally publisher has been murdered, and the author has some fun at the expense of unscrupulous vanity publishers. The storyline darts hither and thither, but without ever becoming unduly distracting. Beef is, as usual, a commanding figure, and Lionel seems rather more sympathetic than usual, even though we suspect he has something to hide.

It may be that there are no original whodunit plots, but certainly the central idea here is handled in a way that struck me as fresh and pleasing. Even though I knew roughly what was going on, I found the story readable and enjoyable. A good mystery that certainly deserves to be better known.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Girl in a Swing - film review

Long before The Girl on the Train, there was The Girl in a Swing. This was a  novel, the fourth by Richard Adams, famed as author of Watership Down. In 1988, it became a film which is the subject of this review - but in this movie, there's not a rabbit in sight. It's really a horror story with erotic elements, and a few supernatural touches.

Alan Desland (played by Rupert Frazer) is a posh young antiques dealer. Good-looking and well-mannered, he is attractive to women, but when a pretty girl throws herself at him, he's not interested. There's something repressed about him, but he begins to lose his inhibitions while on a trip to Copenhagen, when he falls head over with a young German secretary (Meg Tilly).

The girl is rather mysterious, but she falls for Alan, and agrees to marry him. However, she disappoints him by refusing to marry in church, and there are other odd aspects to her behaviour. After early mishaps, their sex life becomes increasingly adventurous, but a sequence of strange little incidents causes Alan understandable concern. What exactly is going on only becomes apparent late in the film, and the explanation pulls the various story strands together reasonably well.

It also makes it easier to understand why Alan's character is key to the storyline. I have to say I found him distinctly lacking in charisma, though the same cannot be said of his co-star, Meg Tilly. Nicholas Le Prevost, a dependable actor, plays the part of Alan's best friend, who happens to be a vicar, and there's a role for Jean Boht, whose husband Carl Davis wrote the soundtrack. Quite watchable, and although scarcely a classic comparable to Watership Down, I rather admire Adams for trying something so very different.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Agatha Christie's Lost Plays

I've very much enjoyed listening to a two-CD set of Agatha Christie's Lost Plays. This comprises two pretty obscure radio plays, Butter in a Lordly Dish and Personal Call, and a radio adaptation of the Poirot short story Murder in the Mews. The plays are supplemented by rare radio recordings of Christie, and also an interview with the actor who plays a boy in Murder in the Mews and went on to win an Oscar as a set designer.

All three plays make for very good light entertainment, and Butter in a Lordly Dish I found especially impressive. It's a very good example of the way in which the nature of justice and retribution regularly plays a part in her work, a feature that critics have often under-estimated. I was also interested in that it was one of six plays written by members of the Detection Club shortly after the Second World War in an attempt to raise funds.

It was first broadcast on 13 January 1948, and it was followed by:

  • The Murder at Warbeck Hall by Cyril Hare
  • A Nice Cup of Tea by Anthony Gilbert
  • Sweet Death by Christianna Brand
  • Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble by E. C. R. Lorac
  • Where Do We Go From Here? by Dorothy L. Sayers

A good list, huh? Hare's play formed the basis for his entertaining later novel An English Murder.

Personal Call is a neat story with a faint touch of the supernatural, while Murder in the Mews is a story with a cleverly contrived plot that, like so much of Christie's work, plays games with the listener's expectations. All in all, this is an excellent CD, with first class bonus extras. Recommended.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Little Walls

The Little Walls was published in 1955, and the following year, it won the CWA's Crossed Red Herring Award for the best crime novel of the year. That was the very first time the prize had been awarded. It's now the CWA Gold Dagger. Some of the finest crime novels of the past sixty years have won the Gold Dagger, but a surprising number have fallen far out of sight since then.

The Little Walls is among them, and yet its author is renowned. He was Winston Graham, famous above all for Poldark, which I've never read or watched, but which is undoubtedly very popular. What is more, Graham's crime fiction was also successful - Hitchcock filmed Marnie, for instance, and The Walking Stick also became a movie.

This novel reminded me strongly of the type of thriller Eric Ambler was writing at much the same time. Graham's writing, like Ambler's, is several cuts above the average. He is strong on character and setting and competent with plot, though this isn't a whodunit. Rather, it involves the attempt by Philip Turner to find out the truth about the death of his brother, who apparently committed suicide by jumping into a canal in Amsterdam.

The heart of the book lies in a series of moral dilemmas. Graham contrasts two different types of personality, in effect representing good and evil, and does so in a way that is constantly interesting, even if the pace is occasional less fast than one expects of a thriller. Much of the action takes place in Capri, and he evokes that lovely island's languid nature very well. I can see why this book won the award, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it at last.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books - Reviews and Blog Tour

I'm just back from a short break, during which I was thrilled to get word of a wonderful and very extensive review of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books in the Sunday Times. Roland White described the book as "a fascinating guide". It's a long time since I last featured in the Sunday Times. My fourth novel Yesterday's Papers, was one of their Paperbacks of the Year; a great honour, though alas it didn't stop Transworld from deciding not to publish me in paperback any longer (in those days I had a separate hardback publisher). I'm hoping to avoid a similar fate this time....

The book has also been discussed at considerable length in reviews on Bookbag and Cross Examining Crime. It goes without saying that I'm very gratified by the reaction. One labours over a book like this for a long time, constantly trying to make it better, yet conscious that perfection is never achievable. The real question is: how far short of perfection does one fall? It's essential to be philosophical about reviews, because you can never please everybody, but it's always a huge relief when people react positively. Although I never release a book without feeling it's the best I could have done, there's never any guarantee that others will feel likewise (or alternatively, that one's best is good enough). Perhaps because of the enormous positivity about the book so far on both sides of the Atlantic,  publication in the UK has just been brought forward a few days, to today.

Today also marks the start of my blog tour featuring the book. I've contributed distinct but overlapping posts to a range of excellent blogs both here and in the US. Today we start with Lesa Holstine's blog. I first met Lesa quite a while back, when I (together with Ann Cleeves and the late Stuart Pawson) did an event for a group of visiting American crime fans in Harrogate. I'm also looking forward to talking to a similar group in the Lake District next month. Such events, and the connections they engender, are definitely a part of the pleasure of the life of a writer. And so are intelligent and encouraging reviews.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Out of the Fog - 1962 film review

Out of the Fog is a black and white thriller film dating from 1962. Its alternate title, Fog for a Killer, is also the title of the book, written by Bruce Graeme, on which the screenplay is based. Graeme, a founder member of the Crime Writers' Association, enjoyed a long and prolific career as a novelist, and although he was never a superstar, he was a highly professional storyteller.

His ability to put together a suspenseful story is illustrated by this film. George Mallon (David Sumner) is a surly young man with a series of convictions to his name. He's released from prison, and offered a place in a hostel along with a number of other ex-cons, with whom he fails to bond. I was intrigued to see that the woman who helps to run the hostel was played by Renee Houston, whose sister Billie made a brief foray into crime writing with Twice Round the Clock. .

Mallon gets a job as a delivery man, and has a brief romance with a young blonde woman which ends abruptly when she is murdered. Nor is she the first victim of a killer with a seeming taste for killing young blonde women. The police suspect Mallon, but have no evidence to prove his guilt. So a young blonde-haired officer (Susan Travers) is given the task of acting as bait.

Needless to say, things don't go according to plan. I figured out what was going to happen, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying this short, snappy film. Sumner and Travers went on to enjoy long careers as actors without really hitting the heights, but Travers in particular does a good job here. There's a decent jazzy soundtrack by Ken Thorne, and overall I felt this film was a notch or two above the average for its time.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Gilded Fly

Yes, I know. It's pushing things to describe Edmund Crispin's The Case of the Gilded Fly as a Forgotten Book. But the Harper Collins Detective Story Club has reissued the novel, and it's good to see it featuring in this eclectic and attractively presented collection. And this edition benefits from an introduction by Doug Greene, who knows more about classic crime than almost anyone I know.

I first came across this novel as a teenager. I'd read and enjoyed The Moving Toyshop, so I borrowed this one from the public library next. Now at the age of 13 or so, I had never been to Oxford, and certainly no concept of what it was like - quite a disadvantage when reading Crispin. This story, like The Moving Toyshop, features an apparent impossibility, but is an apprentice work - Crispin wrote it when he was still an undergraduate at St John's College. And the first chapter introduces a large cast of characters, wittily yet a little clumsily. I have to say that the young Martin Edwards was a bit disappointed, and in fact I didn't finish it. Nor did I return to Crispin until some years had passed.

Now, of course, I appreciate Crispin much more than I did then. His wit and cleverness are strengths, though I think that in this novel, the intelligence is rather self-conscious, a sign of the author's inexperience. My adolescent judgement of the book was too harsh, And now that I love Oxford as Crispin did, I empathise with his portrayal of the city and its eccentric characters.

Especially for such a very young author, this is a well-contrived mystery, although it's still, in my opinion, clearly inferior to books such as The Moving Toyshop and Buried for Pleasure. Yseut, the victim, is suitably unpleasant, but Fen is also, as Crispin seems to acknowledge, pretty irritating too - especially when he makes clear that he knows whodunit early on, but declines to tell. I know Poirot did this time and again, but Fen doesn't carry it off quite as well, and the killer strikes again before the final unmasking.. A critic in The Indpendent even said in a review that he wished Fen, rather than Yseut, had been the victim! As for the murder motive, I'm afraid it' emerges from nowhere, really: not exactly fair play. For a Golden Age fan, Crispin is always worth reading, and there's a lot of pleasure to be had here from his humour and his evocation of Oxford. But for all its merits, it is an apprentice work..

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Lichfield and Remembrance

Yesterday, I seized the opportunity of another lovely June day to follow up a very good recommended trip to a couple of destinations in Staffordshire. And it worked out really splendidly, as well as being rather thought-provoking.

First stop was Lichfield. I've never been there in my life before, partly because my heart always sinks at driving down the M6 (not that anyone who lives in Lymm and likes to travel can really avoid the motorway, mind you). I've heard great things about the cathedral and the town itself is lively and attractive.

I had not, though heard of Erasmus Darwin until I stumbled across his house, now turned into a museum with a lovely garden. It turns out that Erasmus was not only Charles Darwin's grandad, but also a poet, doctor, scientist and inventor. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley all admired him. The museum is definitely worth a visit. Erasmus was clearly a remarkable man.

I did know that Dr Johnson hailed from Lichfield (as did David Garrick) and there are statues of both Johnson and Boswell in the market square. The cathedral is ancient and appealing, while the chapter house does an excellent ploughman's lunch. But I didn't have time for the Johnson birthplace museum, alas, because I also wanted to take in the National Memorial Arboretum, which is only a short drive away. This is a really impressive project, in the developing National Forest. Extensive tribute is paid to those who have given their lives in serving Britain, and I find the whole place poignant, not least a wonderful area given over to poppies and other wild flowers. It was a memorable trip.