Friday, 21 April 2017

Forgotten Book - Bird in a Cage

Frederic Dard was a successful and exceptionally prolific French crime writer whose work is little known in Britain despite the fact that he's often been compared to his friend Georges Simenon. That should change now, since Pushkin Vertigo have begun to publish some of his English translation. I decided to have a look at Bird in a Cage, first published in 1961, and now translated by David Bellos.

This is a mystery set at Christmas, but if you're expecting a Parisian equivalent of The Santa Klaus Murder, you are in for a shock. It's really a noir story, with a melancholic mood, and a whiff of Boileau-Narcejac (when will more of their mysteries be translated into English, I wonder? Vertigo was far from being their only masterpiece).

The protagonist is Albert, who has come back home after years of absence. His mother is dead, and he becomes entranced by an attractive woman he chances to meet. The woman has a child (although it has to be said that the narrative does not show her parenting skills in a particularly good light) but she seems as drawn to Albert as he is to him.

Before long, however, we are confronted with a corpse, and in due course, in classic mystery fashion, the body vanishes. What is going on? I enjoyed this story, and felt that Bellos' translation worked well. It's a very short book, not much more than a novella, but none the worse for that brevity. I enjoyed reading it, and will look forward to reading more Frederic Dard.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books - the cover and the first review...


It really is a great thrill for me to be able to give advance notice of the publication (in July in the UK, August in the US) of my new book, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, published by the British Library.

The first thing for me to say is that although the book covers some of the same ground as The Golden Age of Murder, it's very different in approach, and in almost every other respect. It's not a list, not even a collection of personal favourites. The clue is in the title - I wanted here to tell a story.

I've invested a lot of time and effort in this book, so naturally I'm anxious about how it will be received. The Golden Age of Murder is perhaps, quite a hard act for me to follow. 

So you will appreciate that I was excited (and relieved, let's be honest) when Publishers' Weekly in the US gave the book one of its prized "starred reviews" the other day. It's a great way for the story of this particular book to begin. 

And it's such a nice review, perhaps I'll be forgiven for quoting it in full:

Written as a companion to the British Library’s Crime Classics series of reprints, this descriptive critical catalogue of 100 crime and mystery novels (mostly British) published in the first half of the 20th century is irresistible for aficionados and a reliable reading list for newcomers. Edwards’ picks, most published during detective fiction’s golden age between the two world wars, range chronologically from Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) to Julian Symons’s The 31st of February (1950) and include, in addition to many of the usual suspects, a few outliers sure to enliven debates among diehard fans. He groups his selections into 24 chapters that cover numerous aspects of the literature—the great detectives, the fair-play mystery (epitomized by Ronald Knox’s The Body in the Silo), the miraculous or locked-room mystery (a specialty of John Dickson Carr), country house and manor murder mysteries, and so on—and whose ordering shows classic tropes giving way to newer approaches more resonant with modern times. A crime novelist in his own right, Edwards (The Golden Age of Murder) brings a specialist’s discerning eye to discussions of each book’s significance, and without giving away key plot points. This is an exemplary reference book sure to lead readers to gems of mystery and detective fiction. 

Monday, 17 April 2017

Foreign Bodies

There are some fascinating titles coming up in the British Library's Crime Classics series over the next twelve months. The programme for the second half of this year has recently been made public, and it includes a number of books I'm really pleased about. These include The Long Arm of the Law, a collection of police stories that I've edited, for which I've just finished writing the intros. Several rare stories make an appearance, as well as some by more familiar names.

I suppose, though, that if you forced me to say which of the various anthologies I'm editing this year is likely to excite the most interest, I'd be bound to say Foreign Bodies, which is due out in October. This book gathers together classic crime stories in translation. Some of the translations are brand new, and the friends and colleagues to whom I am especially indebted include John Pugmire and Josh Pachter.

It's often thought that classic crime fiction was the preserve of British and American authors. Georges Simenon is seen as an honourable exception. But the truth is more complicated, and more interesting. In reality, plenty of authors in Europe and elsewhere were writing crime stories, sometimes with a nod to Anglo-Saxon traditions and tropes, sometimes not. The trouble is, very few of these stories were translated at the time.

Foreign Bodies seeks to redress the balance, and tell an interesting story about foreign crime fiction. I'll say more about the detailed contents at a later date, but at this stage let me just add that of all the many anthologies I've edited since the mid-90s, I think this one might prove to be the most striking. We'll see.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Forgotten Book - The Martineau Murders

The Martineau Murders is the last novel published by Richard Hull. An obscure and hard-to-find title, It appeared under the Collins Crime Club imprint in 1953, and it marked the end of an interesting literary career. I've mentioned my enthusiasm for Hull (real name Richard Henry Sampson) several times on this blog, and I've been trying to find out more about him for years..

In  his day, he was much admired, and he continued to play an active part in the Detection Club, of which he was Secretary, for a long time after he gave up writing. It seems to me that he lost enthusiasm for fiction, as there is a touch of weariness evident in some of his post-war books. None of them lived up to his famous debut, The Murder of My Aunt. But The Martineau Murders represents a return to that book. Not because there are any common characters or a shared setting, but certainly some story elements are to be found in both novels.

"My doctor has just left me" is the opening sentence. Alas, the medic has brought bad news to the narrator, the eponymous Martineau, or so it seems. But Martineau is a rather unreliable narrator, and much of the pleasure of the story comes from the reader's recognition of the gulf between Martineau's perceptions and reality. Some of this is, perhaps, rather laboured for modern tastes, and this is a book that (like one or two of Hull's other books) could have done with a meatier plot, but it is still quite entertaining.

By the time this book was written, more than a decade had passed since the appearance of the last book by Francis Iles, the author whose Malice Aforethought was a profound influence on Hull. The two men laced their work with a good deal of irony, and the law of unintended consequences plays a central part in their fiction. So it is with The Martineau Murders, a village mystery with a pleasing if foreseeable twist in the final chapter.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Fear is the Key - 1972 film review

During my teens, I went through an Alistair MacLean phase, reading every thriller he'd written. I began with The Last Frontier,and took in classics like H.M.S. Ulysses and Where Eagles Dare along the way. In time, MacLean's writing seemed to me to deteriorate, and I stopped reading him. But one of my favourites of his novels was Fear is the Key, which impressed me with its plot twists and emotional drive.

So I was glad to seize the chance to watch the film version, made in 1972,when MacLean's fame was more or less at its height. His stories were visual, and many were turned into films, most of which I watched - but somehow I missed this one. Perhaps because its cast was slightly less starry - although it did include a youngish Ben Kingsley, complete with a full head of hiir!

Barry Newman plays John Talbot, the main protagonist. Newman was well-known as the star of the TV series Petrocelli, but for me he was never quite in the top league of action heroes. Here he does a competent job, but although it's perhaps a harsh judgment, I feel he didn't have quite the level of charisma, magnetism or however one describes it that seems necessary for the role of Talbot. The obligatory glamorous young woman is played by Suzy Kendall, who was once married to Dudley Moore.

At the start of the film, Talbot is involved in a tragic but slightly mysterious incident. The action then shifts forward three years. Talbot is arrested and brought to court, where he shoots a policeman and escapes after kidnapping Suzy Kendall. There's a memorable car chase, and the plot twists come at acceptably regular intervals. Roy Budd supplies an excellent, jazzy soundtrack. Overall, a watchable action movie, but it's not of the same high quality as some of the best MacLean films.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Miraculous Mysteries

Today sees the UK publication of Miraculous Mysteries, my collection of classic locked room and impossible crime mysteries for the British Library. I've always had a love of this paradoxical type of puzzle, and this book is dedicated to the memory of Bob Adey, the greatest expert on the subject, who guided me to so many hidden gems prior to his untimely death.

The first locked room detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Poe, was a short story, and I feel that the short form is best suited to the locked room puzzle, because of the necessarily fantastic nature of most of the plots. Of course, there are some fine novels featuring impossible crimes, and John Dickson Carr wrote a bunch of them. But I see these mostly as exceptions to the general rule.

As ever, I've tried to include a range of familiar and unfamiliar authors. We all know Conan Doyle, but Grenville Robbins is long forgotten. And so too is Marten Cumberland, even though he had a long and relatively successful career. I'm very pleased too that I've been able to include a little known story by Christopher St John Sprigg that I found highly enjoyable.

I'm delighted by the initial reaction to the book, including this splendid review. It would please me enormously if this book were to sell well, since there are plenty of good classic impossible crime stories around, and I'd love to put together a follow-up volume. But that lies far in the future. Right now, I'm celebrating this book, and I hope that it provides thousands of readers with plenty of entertainment.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Forgotten Book - Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy

Freeman Wills Crofts published Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (aka The Starvel Hollow Tragedy) in 1927. It's often cited as one of his best books, and I concur with that view. The story is readable from start to finish, and the plot is worked out rather cleverly. So although I latched on to one aspect of the solution at an early stage, Crofts managed to confuse me with some rather neat twists.

At first, the focus is on an attractive young woman who lives with her miserly uncle in a Yorkshire mansion - the location seemed from internal evidence to be somewhere in the vicinity of Helmsby and Thirsk. After she goes away on a short visit to a friend, she returns to find the house burned to the ground. Three corpses are discovered, evidently those of her uncle and two servants. At first it looks like a tragic accident.

But a local bank manager takes a different view, and before long Scotland Yard are called in, in the person of good old Inspector Joseph French. He's portrayed in a rather human fashion, yearning for promotion and keen to keep on the right side of his superiors, but utterly relentless in his pursuit of the guilty once it becomes clear that this is a case of arson and multiple murder.

As with The Cask, Crofts manages to sustain interest in the detailed police investigation by offering a sequence of surprising developments. I enjoyed this book - which was reissued by Hogarth back in the 80s - and can recommend it to anyone who likes Croftsian writing. Crofts was an engineer by profession and this mystery is certainly engineered with high calibre craftsmanship.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

San Francisco

Because Hawaii is so far away from Cheshire, I wanted to break up the long journey home. And where better to do so than a city I've long wanted to discover, San Francisco? The city by the bay did more than live up to expectations. It's now my favourite American city. I may not quite have left my heart there, but I found it quite enthralling.

It's a city with strong crime fiction associations. Laurie R. King lives there, and she gave me a few tips about places to visit. I was fascinated by my first glimpse of Alcatraz, scene of some notable movies. I suppose, though, that I associate San Francisco most closely with two films. First, Bullitt, the private eye film legendary for its car chase. And second, Vertigo, one of the best crime films ever made; I've seen it four or five times. And of course the full list of famous films set there is lengthy.

I'm often teased for my unashamedly touristy devotion to hop-on, hop-off buses, but I'm unrepentant: they make a very good way to get one's bearings in an unfamiliar place, and my first aim was to do just that. After riding around the city, the next step was to explore Fisherman's Wharf, and Pier 39 (I hadn't expected to see large numbers of sea lions right next to it) and take a ride on one of the famous cable cars, which I loved. Then there was a night bus tour, a chance to see both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge lit up against the night sky. All very memorable.

Next came a trip to Sausalito, an appealing little town with a Riviera-like atmosphere. From there we took the ferry across the bay, past the Golden Gate Bridge, past Alcatraz and back to the ferry terminal. And in the terminal building, while having a snack, I spotted a bookshop called Book Passage. Unable to resist, I had a look inside and to my amazement found two of the anthologies I've edited for the British Library. Quite a treat.

 Further exploration followed - the "Crookedest Street", which is unlike anything I've ever seen - Chinatown, Japantown, and the Painted Ladies (the latter a group of houses on Alamo Square). My plan now is to read some more crime fiction set in San Francisco. I'm familiar with Laurie's books - any other recommendations?.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Hawaii Five-O

My trip to Hawaii was replete with crime story connections. Quite apart from Charlie Chan, I cast my mind back to two shows I watched as a small boy - Hawaiian Eye, and Hawaii Five-O. One tour on Oahu even gave me a sight of the island used as setting for another show I enjoyed when very young - Gilligan's Island. I doubt it would stand up to scrutiny now. And though I didn't bump into Steve McGarrett, I was delighted to share the adventure with Steve Steinbock. There were many conversations about crime fiction late into the evening.

After Oahu, we went to Kauai, where Steve hired a car, enabling us to cover much of the island, including a canyon described as the island's answer to the Grand Canyon. Quite a spectacle. Kauai really is a tropical paradise, and I have come up with an idea for a story set there. I'm hoping to start work on it shortly. I'm no wildlife expert, but Hawaii is full of fantastic opportunities to see the indigenous wildlife. We saw everything from giant turtles swimming off the amazing Spouting Horn on Kauai, to wild pigs at a waterfall a few miles from Lihue, mongooses aplenty on Oahu, and roosters everywhere.

Next stop was Maui, and we stayed at Lahaina, where Mick Fleetwood has a restaurant on Front Street, a road awash with galleries selling very impressive and very expensive art ("Is thirteen thousand dollars a lot of money? I don't know," one gallery owner mused; I did know, and made my excuses quickly enough.)

There were hula dancers aplenty, but the most memorable sights came when we went whale watching on an eco-ferry. I once went dolphin watching off Gibraltar, and saw not one dolphin, but this was very different. The sea was full of whales, and it was fascinating to watch them. I found myself intrigued by the Hawaiian way of life, as well as by the wonderful scenery. A memorable trip, for sure.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Honolulu Havoc Left Coast Crime in Hawaii

Right now, I am adjusting (rather slowly) to British Summer Time after a trip which took me to the other side of the world. The jetlag was definitely worth it - I had an amazing time, and feel fortunate to have spent just over a fortnight globe-trotting after my previous travels in recent weeks. The reason for this jaunt was that the Left Coast Crime convention, which I've attended once before, in Seattle, was being held in Hawaii this year. I felt that Honolulu Havoc presented a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so I grabbed it.
The convention was fun. I moderated one panel, on the theme of criminal justice, with four American panellists whom I hadn't met before but, who to my delight, proved to have plenty of great stories to tell. And I took part in a Golden Age panel, very well moderated, with colleagues including Ragnar Jonasson and Steve Steinbock. This was tremendous fun, with a very good crowd. It seems almost incredible, but in the last six months I've talked about Golden Age mysteries in New Orleans, Madrid, Dubai, and Hawaii.
There was also the chance to catch up with a range of old friends, including my delightful American publishers, Rob Rosenwald and Barbara Peters, who were in grand form. As I've said before, the social side is what makes conventions, in my opinion, so well worth the time, effort, and cost. As friendships grow, and mutual understanding develops, opportunities for worthwhile writing and other projects can sometimes emerge, and this is often very exciting. I enjoyed meals with my publishers, with Laurie R. King, Bill and Toby Gottfried, uber-Sherlockian Les Klinger, among others. I was also glad to have a chat with Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, whom I hadn't met before, and another guest of honour, Colin Cotterill. Steve and his wife had agreed with us that we'd share each other's company on three Hawaiian islands, and this worked out wonderfully well. One of our dinners even took place in a restaurant named in tribute to Charlie Chan.

Honolulu is on Oahu, and it's a busy place, overflowing with tourists, but beyond the skyscrapers and the beaches there is also a lot of history. I learned much more about the tragic events at Pearl Harbour, and also went on a trip round the south part of the island, After four days, I was sorry to leave. So will I be writing a story set in Oahu? I doubt it. But Kauai, our next destination, was a different story...  


Friday, 31 March 2017

Forgotten Book - The Murder on the Burrows

My Forgotten Book for today is The Murder on the Burrows, which in 1931 launched the long and pretty successful career of E.C.R. Lorac. For a debut novel from the Golden Age, it stands up to present day scrutiny rather well, There are a few awkwardnesses about the writing, admittedly. For instance, I think she confuses the ranks of superintendent and sergeant. What's more, the chap who was to become her series cop, Inspector Macdonald (sometimes called Chief Inspector in the story) is given the first name James, although he became Robert in later books.

Overall, though, the story is a good one, and it gets off to a swift start when two men discover an apparently abandoned motor car on the Burrows at Bideford Bay. (This area was a favourite holiday spot for the author). The car proves to contain a dead body inside it, though it soon becomes apparent that the crime was committed elsewhere.

When Scotland Yard is called in, Macdonald focueses his inquiries in London. The dead man had a Russian name, but in reality he was an Englishman who had become a Communist. Lorac does  not dwell on the political aspects of the story, but the deceased is treated rather sympathetically. My impression is that her politics were, at least at this point in her life, left of centre, though I doubt she was one of those Golden Age writers who flirted with Marxism. But there's a liberal flavour to her work in the 30s.

Lorac was keen on music, and this is evident when a classical pianist enters the story. Macdonald is roughly in the Inspector French tradition of persistent, if likeable cop, though the fictional detectives who are name-checked are Poirot and Lynn Brock's Colonel Gore (who at that time was much better known than he is today). Macdonald needs to return to the Burrows to resolve matters, and all  in all the story is neatly constructed. If you could find a first edition of this rare novel in a dust jacket, it would be worth a great deal of money. Lorac has been a collectible writer for some time, and this is a rare title. But I'm glad I managed at least to track down a second hand reprint.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Final Appointment - 1954 film review

Final Appointment is a good example of the Fifties black and white crime movie. Short and snappy and appealing, with a bonus in the appearance of a future star. This is a story about a series of killings that are clearly connected. A journalist (played by John Bentley) investigates, in collaboration with a colleague who fancies him (Eleanor Summerfiled) and an affable if sceptical cop (Liam Redmond).

The film begins with Bentley waiting for an appointment with a snooty solicitor (Hubert Gregg). He's told brusquely that you can't walk in off the street and demand an appointment with the senior partner. Nowadays, of course, you'd have to spend ages proving your identity so that there could be full compliance with anti-money laundering legislation. No such bureaucracy sixty years back...

Bentley has discovered that three men have been killed on the same date in each of the past three years. And that the solicitor is receiving threatening letters. Bizarrely, the solicitor doesn't seem in the least bit bothered. There's not a strong plot reason for this remarkable lack of legal caution. Soon the connecting link between the deaths becomes clear. I felt this revelation might have been held back a bit to increase the mystery. I was also not quite convinced that the motive was strong enough to justify such havoc. Anyway, for most of the film, the focus is on identifying the killer, and trying to avert the murder of the irritating solicitor..

The cast is a good one, and includes that versatile actor Sam Kydd. But I was particularly pleased to spot Arthur Lowe working in the solicitors' office. Yes, Captain Mainwaring himself, looking exactly the same as he did many years later. It's a small part, though; he was a minor figure in those days. Overall, it's a film well worth watching, directed by Terence Fisher with a screenplay by Kenneth Hayles. The source was a play by Sidney Nelson and Maurice Harrison called Death Keeps a Date.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Death Goes to School - 1953 film review

I was intrigued to find Death Goes to School , a 1953 black and white movie, on the Talking Pictures schedule recently. Public schools were a rather popular setting for traditional mysteries. Nicholas Blake, R.C. Woodthorpe, Christopher Bush, Gladys Mitchell and others wrote good examples, using the "closed society" of the English public school to provide a conveniently limited pool of suspects. But I'd never heard before of this film, or the novel on which it was based, Death in Seven Hours by Stratford Davis.

I discovered that Stratford Davis was a pen-name for Maisie Sharman, who also co-wrote the screenplay with the film's director, Stephen Clarkson. I know little about Sharman, but it seems she enjoyed a remarkably lengthy, if not exactly prolific, career as a screenwriter. According to that useful source IMDB, her first credit was a 1938 film called Night Journey, and her last was a 1973 TV mystery, written as Miriam Sharman. If anyone reading this blog is familiar with her work, I'd like to know more.

Death Goes to School is an unpretentious mystery, but competent and still watchable. It benefits from the fact that three key roles went to actors of genuine quality. Barbara Murray plays the likeable young schoolteacher whose scarf is used to strangle a nasty colleague. Gordon Jackson plays the rather macho police inspector and the ever-reliable Sam Kydd is his sidekick. They get the best out of their parts. There's quite a nice joke when Barbara Murray gives as her alibi the fact that she was reading a thriller called...Death in Seven Hours.

The plot is competent rather than dazzling. Various people at the school have a motive, as the thinly characterised victim really was very unpleasant. Someone outside the school then comes into the frame. I felt that the motive for the murder wasn't terribly convincing, but despite this weakness, the film held my attention. As with so many of those Fifties B-movies, it's decent light entertainment.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Forgotten Book - Joe Jenkins: Detective

Readers of this blog are, as their comments regularly demonstrate, a very well-read bunch, but I'd like to bet that few of them have come across my Forgotten Book for today. Joe Jenkins; Detective was written by Paul Rosenhayn, and trnnslated from the German by Jane Head. The book was published in Britain by William Heinemann - a firm which always had an eye for good material -in 1929. But it's rather got lost in the mists of time.

The fact that its appearance coincided with global economic meltdown may well have been a contributing factor. Perhaps more significant was the fact that, unfortunately, the author died in 1929. So who was Paul Rosenhayn? He was born in Hamburg in 1877, and was educated in both England and Germany. He travelled extensively, not only in Europe and the USA, but also in India, and he wrote for British and German newspapers.

Rosenhayn turned to writing fiction, and as far as I can tell, he started writing stories about an American private detective called Joe Jenkins rather more than a decade before the Heinemann book appeared. A set of the stories seem to have been collected for publication in Germany in 1916, and they enjoyed great success. Rosenhayn became a prolific writer during the last twelve years or so of his life, and also wrote screenplays.

What of the stories? They are set in various locations in Germany, and also in France, and are quite a varied bunch. Jenkins is a sort of poor man's Sherlock, a master of disguise, and renowned for his brilliance, but thinly characterised. We really learn nothing about him as a man - for Rosenhayn, the plot was the thing. And one or two of the plots are really pretty good. Some of the stories have worn better than others, but I found my introduction to this once-popular sleuth quite entertaining.  

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Love from a Stranger - 1937 film review

Love from a Stranger is a 1937 crime film, and a very interesting one too. For a start, it's based on a story by Agatha Christie - "Philomel Cottage". Christie adapted it for the stage, but a more renowned theatrical version was written by the actor, director and playwright Frank Vosper. His play had a very good run in the West End, though it didn't do so well on Broadway. His mysterious death by drowning in 1937 is discussed in The Golden Age of Murder.

1937 also saw the release of this film version of his script. Carol Howard (played by an American actress, Ann Harding, in a slightly odd piece of casting) and her friend Kate (Binnie Hale) lead a humdrum and fairly impoverished life in London, but Carol's bloke, Ronnie (Bruce Seton) is due to return from years working in Africa. Then Carol wins the French lottery...

Her life changes in many ways. Above all, she ditches dear old Ronnie in favour of a suave chap who comes to look round her flat when she puts it on the market. The new beau is played by Basil Rathbone, and although the script eventually requires him to ham things up a bit, he brings his customary chaiisma to the role, as well as, eventually, a good deal of menace.

But this film also offers a special treat, undreamed of when it was made. Carol's maid, the extremely stupid Emmy, is played by Joan Hickson. Yes, the future Miss Marple makes an early film appearance, in a smallish but striking part. I very much enjoyed seeing this. All in all, it's still good entertainment. Yes, we can guess what's coming, but it's nicely done, all the same.

Monday, 20 March 2017

No Trace - aka Murder by the Book - 1950 film review

No Trace, also known as Murder by the Book, is a crime film from 1950 which benefits from a cast with strength in depth. It's the story of a crime novelist who finds himself driven by sheer desperation to commit murder. Ah, a familiar feeling, you may say. Perhaps I'll refrain from comment as to the plausibility of the premise!

The novelist, Robert Southley, is very successful, and has a devoted and very attractive secretary (Dinah Sheridan) as well as chums in the police force - an inspector played by John Laurie, later of Dad's Army fame, and a sergeant who also fancies the secretary, who is played by Barry Morse, later the remorseless cop who pursued Richard Kimble for so long in the seemingly never-ending TV series The Fugitive.

Southley is played by Hugh Sinclair, and this is one of those stories where a chap who is on the straight and narrow is suddenly confronted by someone from his less salubrious past who is intent on blackmail. We're asked to believe that the upright Southley was once a member of a gang that went around the US burgling places. I did find it difficult to suspend my belief here, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Sinclair is really the weakest link in the whole cast. I really wasn't sure what the secretary saw in him.

The story unfolds rather nicely - it's one of those where we see a killer execute a clever plan, and the question is whether he'll get away with it or be tripped up by smart detective work. Along the way, there are roles for Dora Bryan and the ubiquitous Sam Kydd. All in all it's a very watchable film, although some fuzziness about Southley's characterisation means that it isn't quite as gripping as it might have been.


Friday, 17 March 2017

Forgotten Book - The Test Match Murder

The Test Match Murder, first published in 1936 (and not, as far as I know, ever reprinted) is my Forgotten Book for today. It was written by Denzil Batchelor, a British journalist and broadcaster who became interested in sports writing while working in Sydney. And this book is set, not as you might expect at Lord's Cricket Ground or The Oval, but in Sydney. England's star batsman, Franklyn, dies sensationally while walking out to the crease with his team already struggling at eight for three.

I first became aware of Batchelor many years ago, after reading a witty cricket essay of his, but I didn't know he'd written a cricket-based crime novel. This is certainly an obscure one, and I had hopes that it might prove to be an undiscovered masterpiece. I'm afraid it is not, although it's amusing in patches - there's a nice spoof of the Great Detective character - and ends quite well.

Franklyn has been poisoned by, of all things, curare. Someone at Sydney Cricket Ground has tampered with his batting glove. But who? Some of the detective work is done by Owen Brownlow and his sleuthing brother Latimer, but the official police investigator eventually takes centre stage. The story sags badly in the middle, with the introduction of dope gangs and even (despite the strictures of Ronald Knox) a mysterious Chinaman, These features never, in my experience, improve a Golden Age detective novel..

Overall, though, the book was worth persevering with. There's not much about cricket in it, which I found regrettable, but which those who don't love cricket may be glad to hear. Batchelor was a talented writer, and on his death at the age of 63 in 1969, his friends noted his great versatility. It was common in the mid-Thirties for people to dabble in detective fiction, and in some ways he reminds me of the better known Alan Melville, who also wrote crime stories early in his career. This book is very hard to find but despite its limitations, I'm glad I tracked down a copy.    

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Life in Danger - 1959 film review

Life in Danger is a short, but pleasingly suspenseful film released in 1959 and starring Derren Nesbitt. The screenplay was written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, who became dependable television writers in the Sixties, and the director was Terry Bishop, who also worked on several TV series that I recall dimly from my youth.

We see Nesbitt running through the countryside, and soon learn that a dangerous killer has just escaped from a nearby asylum. Nesbitt's character is socially awkward, and he doesn't have any money. A woman takes pity on him and gives him some coins, but his attempt to find work from a local publican goes awry. There is a sign on the wall saying that gypsies are not served, and Nesbitt makes himself scarce after a policeman comes into the pub.

His next move is to go to a nearby farm. Here he befriends an unhappy young girl whose parents treat her badly. She fancies him and when he says he needs some rest, takes him to a secret place in a barn. Her young brother joins them, while at the same time the hunt for the escaped murderer intensifies. A local major, played by Howard Marion-Crawford, tries both to impress his girlfriend and take the law into his own hands.

I enjoyed this film, even though I suppose some might say that the twist is not very satisfactorily foreshadowed. But the pace of the story makes it easy to suspend disbelief. The young girl was played by Julie Hopkins, and I find it sad that her acting career seems not to have got very far. She does a good job in this role, and the presentation of prejudice and vigilante instincts is rather well done, even if some of the attitudes displayed seem very, very out of date. Which, nearly sixty years on, is almost inevitable.

Monday, 13 March 2017

UAE Reflections

I was keen to take part in the Emirates Literature Festival for several reasons. One of them was the chance to meet several leading authors whom I'd never encountered in person before. It was a great pleasure to have several conversations with Kathy Reichs, and her husband Paul, and with another British crime writer and cricket lover, Vaseem Khan, and his wife Nirupama. But quite apart from people working in my genre, there was an eclectic mix of leading writers, from sci-fi superstar Peter F. Hamilton to well-known faces from the TV such as Jim Naughtie, Frank Gardner, and Alan Titchmarsh. And it was equally good to talk to a variety of readers, including a long time supporter of this blog, Golden Age collector Clint Stacey, and the daughter of someone I'd met in Madrid, of all places, the previous week; it's a very small world.

Several trips were laid on for us, and one special treat was an evening walking party of ten led by Paul Blezard. Paul took us round the spice and gold souqs, and after a boat trip across the creek, we finished up snacking in a waterside restaurant. If you'd told me  that one day I'd go on a jaunt in the company of Stephen Hawking's daughter Lucy, Hemingway's grandson John, Kathy Reichs and Jim Naughtie's wife, I wouldn't have believed you. For me, it was all rather surreal, but these celebrities were very good company. The walk was followed by dinner in the festival hotel, though by that stage I really should have resisted the urge to carry on eating...

There was a night-time desert feast, watching the flamingoes on the bank during a trip on the impressive new canal, a visit to the amazing opera house, with a talk given by the building's architect, and an ascent to the (almost) the top of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. At an event where the UAE was celebrated with a series of talks from leading local people, I chatted with Peter, who told me that detective elements play a part in his fiction. I'm now really keen to read his The Great North Road, despite his warning me that it's a very long novel!

Listening to those local people talk, I sympathised with their frustration at media stereotypes of Dubai. As a leading local film-maker said, it's not really soulless, and to see it only as a place of shopping malls and retail therapy for lovers of bling is unfair. Thanks to oil, Dubai has come a long way in a short time, but people realise that the oil won't last forever, and they are making huge efforts to develop their cultural life. Education is a key priority, as the festival director emphasised, and many authors made a contribution to this by visiting schools in the area. It's not a perfect society, but then, I've yet to encounter a perfect society.Events such as the Festival help to foster understanding between people from very different backgrounds and cultures, and that has to be a good thing.

Sharjah, where I spent half a day along with Rob Davies, was different but equally interesting. In the course of a week, one cannot get a full picture of a place, but I felt that I learned something about the UAE's brand of Islam,and I'm sure that the coming years will see more progress. I found it all rather inspirational. And yes, that did include the inspiration for a new story. I plan to call it "The Repentance Wood", and in case you're wondering, here is a photo of the original Repentance Wood in Sharjah...