Saturday, 21 October 2017

Guest Blog - Fiona Veitch Smith

At Harrogate in summer I was pleased to meet, at a gathering of fellow Northern crime writers, Fiona Veitch Smith. Fiona is based in the north east, and I'm glad to welcome her to this blog. She's written a guest post about her new book, The Death Beat, which is published by Lion:

"Synchronicity (noun): The simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.

Origin: 1950s. Coined by psychoanalyst CG Jung (who has a cameo in The Death Beat)

I began researching The Death Beat in November 2015.  Set in 1921, I planned to send Poppy, a young London journalist, to New York for three months, with her editor, Rollo. I intended to reveal Rollo’s back story, thrust Poppy into the world of speakeasies, early radio and cinema, and explore the contrast between wealthy and poor immigrants. At the time, the tragedy of the Syrian civil war was all over the media, and the debate in western nations about how many refugees to let in was reaching fever pitch. This was a useful parallel for my poor Jewish immigrant characters, Mimi and Estie, who were fleeing the Russian civil war. I was intrigued to read about the 1921 US Immigration Restriction Act which placed restrictions on immigrants from certain ethnic, religious and national groups.

But what hadn’t happened yet was Donald Trump. All I knew back then was that he was a reality TV star who questioned Barack Obama’s place of birth. It never crossed my mind that in just over a year, Americans would elect this unlikely candidate to the presidency.

But come November 2016 they did just that. By then The Death Beat was finished and, for a few months forgotten, as I started work on the next book. However, in the spring of 2017 the first edits arrived and I re-engaged with it; but this time with the new reality show on the TV every single night. I was startled by the parallels. The policies and attitudes of nearly a century ago were being played out again. In 1921 it was the Jews who were seen as being of the wrong religion, and the darker-skinned Italians who were suspected of being rapists and gangsters. Instead of ‘terrorists’ there were ‘anarchists’; with Eastern Europeans and their socialist leanings declared a threat to national security.

In October 2017, with the release date only two weeks away, synchronicity struck again. One of my unsympathetic characters is a man called Archie Weinstein, created 18 months before the name became infamous. But if that isn’t enough, another character is a Hollywood film producer. Pure coincidence, but an odd one. Now I wait to see how it will all be received…"

Friday, 20 October 2017

Forgotten Book - Too Many Cousins

At one point yesterday, the British Library edition of Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case was jostling with Dan Brown, Philip Pullman and Irvine Welsh in the top 15 Amazon UK Kindle bestsellers list (and in fact this morning it is #12). I think we can safely say that it's no longer a forgotten book. Who, not so long ago, would have foreseen such a revival of interest in Golden Age fiction? Well, today, I'm going to talk about one of Berkeley's colleagues in the Detection Club post-war.

Douglas G. Browne was an interesting writer who combined the writing of detective novels with ventures into true crime - for instance, he co-authored a biography of the legendary pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury. I like his work, because even though his novels are sometimes flawed, he was apt to come up with intriguing ideas. He wasn't in Berkeley's class, but then, few Golden Age writers were..

Too Many Cousins is a case in point. It was published in 1946, but is set towards the end of the war, and it begins splendidly. Harvey Tuke, Browne's regular amateur sleuth, who works in the Department of Public Prosecutions, meets a chap called Parmiter at his club. Parmiter is a professional obituarist. Now I've always found the art of obituary writing very interesting, and I've often toyed with the idea of writing about an obituarist, though I've never got round to it. But recently I got to k now a professional obituary writer, and you never know, I may get round to it one day. Meanwhile, Parmiter's story got me hooked.

He tells Tuke about a series of deaths in the same family that have come to his attention. Each case appears to involve a fatal accident. Yet can it really be coincidence? When Tuke finds that the three people who were died were among six cousins who are in line for a life-changing inheritance, his curiosity is aroused. It appears that one of the surviving cousins has been the victim of an attempted murder, but can we believe what she says? Might she be trying to divert suspicion from herself?

I felt that, once the main characters were introduced, the book faltered somewhat. Never mind too many cousins, there were too few suspects. However, it's all wrapped up quite neatly, and Tuke explains all to Parmiter. But there is still one more twist - and a very pleasing one - to come. All in all, a decent, swift read. My copy, I should add, is rather charmingly inscribed by Browne - "because it is the first for six years." He also corrects in his hand a mistake made on the very first page of the book. I can imagine just how he felt about that. One works hard on a book, and still comes back to the finished version, and finds faults. It happens to me all the time, and I suspect quite a few other writers know the feeling...

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Back from Bouchercon

I've just returned from Bouchercon in Toronto, and it was a pleasant surprise to be greeted by warm Cheshire sunshine in mid-October.. My memories are very warm, too. It was a great convention, and amongst many unforgettable experiences were those outside the scheduled programming, notably a trip to Niagara Falls. It was a drizzly day, but the rain was nothing compared to the majestic torrents of the Falls. Christine Poulson and I sailed in the boat that takes you up close and personal to the torrent, and we learned exactly why you are handed ponchos before boarding. We got drenched, but it was worth it. Truly memorable. (So was the coach trip itself, but that's a story for another day...)

In terms of panels, I got lucky. I took part in a "History of the Genre" panel moderated by Sarah Weinman, which was terrific, and moderated a panel about private investigators and amateur sleuths, with a panel mainly comprising people I'd never met before, and who proved to be witty and articulate conversationalists. As an unexpected bonus, I was invited to join a panel moderated by Barbara Peters, who is one of the best publishers (and booksellers) anywhere, covering the perennial "hardboiled versus cosy" debate. My fellow panellists included Rick Ollerman, whom I first met at New Orleans Bouchercon last year, and whose book about the genre I'm looking forward to devouring shortly. Brian Skupin also presented me with the locked room antho he and John Pugmire have edited, which looks exciting.

Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, invited me to join a group of her authors at lunch, and I was also asked to take part in a celebration of EQMM - an event hosted by Art Taylor, who was a very popular winner of a Macavity for best short story. As well as Janet and Art, I had the chance to catch up with Steve Steinbock of EQMM, with whom I shared a memorable trip to Hawaii earlier this year.

One of the strange things about a massive event such as this is that there are some people one never manages to get to see, which is a shame, but you can't do everything in such a mad whirl. I did, though, have the chance to spend time with quite of lot of old friends and new. One particular pleasure was being taken out to lunch by Peter Robinson a couple of days before the convention began - it's ages since we've got together, and it's always good to catch up. Meals offer a chance to escape the excitement to a nice restaurant and I dined with, amongst others, members of the Malice Domestic Board, Joni, Shawn, and Tonya), and with Steve and Alex Gray, Karin Salvalaggio, Jacques Filippi, and Peter Rozovsky. There was tea with Ann Cleeves as well as with Barbara and with Marv Lachman, an international reception hosted by Crime Writers of Canada, and parties hosted by Harper Collins and Poisoned Pen Press respectively. As well as a mega-book signing event organised by Harper Collins which almost had me running out of ink.
Travelling so far isn't cheap, especially given the current state of sterling, and very understandably, the cost deters some writers and fans. But by combining the trip with some sight-seeing and plenty of fun stuff, one may sometimes be able to justify the expense. This one - like (in different ways) my trips earlier this year to Dubai, Hawaii and Washington DC, ranks as one of the trips of a lifetime - I've just crammed them all into a short space of time! As for books, I did plenty of airport and plane reading, and I'm afraid that even though I promised myself I wouldn't actually buy any books, I did come back with so many that I pushed my luggage weight allowance to the limit. But it was worth it.. .

Monday, 16 October 2017

Midnight Fear - 1990 film review

Midnight Fear is a not very well-known American film that was recently screened on the Talking Pictures TV channel. It's not an old black and white movie, but a film that, in 1990, clearly had aspirations to be cutting-edge. In more ways than one - it's a violent, and at time disturbing thriller about a crazed killer. It's not a masterpiece, but it has some unusual aspects, and it kept me interested.

Early on, it seems as if the story will follow a predictable path. A young couple seem to be building their relationship on a lonely ranch, while a woman is savagely murdered in the same area. David Carradine rolls up to the crime scene: he's an ace detective, but he's also hopelessly drunk. He becomes fascinated by the case, and determines to investigate, even though he's moved to other duties after making a fool of himself on television.

Meanwhile, a couple of nasty-seeming characters are on the loose. They are two brothers - one has just been released from a mental hospital, and is deaf, the other is his brother. They find themselves at the ranch and start to take an unhealthy interest in the young woman who lives there. She's played by August West, an actor about whom I know nothing. Her career seems to have faded, which is a great shame, since I thought she was excellent.

Carradine, as charasmatic and troubled in this film as evidently he was in real life, soon finds himself on the trail of the two brothers. It seems that the deaf chap murdered the girl, and one presumes that there will be a race against time culminating in his trying and failing to murder August West's character, before Carradine ultimately prevails. In fact, the plot veers off in a different direction. As I say, it's a disturbing film, with a number of striking plot twists, and it does not deserve to be consigned to oblivion.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Forgotten Book - Fear to Tread

Fear to Tread is one of Michael Gilbert's early books, dating from 1953, and isn't especially well-known. It's a thriller, rather than a detective story or a police novel, although Gilbert's series police detective Hazlerigg plays a small part in the story. But that's typical Gilbert: he focused on storytelling rather than writing series. Here, the hero is a headmaster called Mr Wetherall, whose hatred of bullying leads him into danger.

I first read the novel at the back end of the 60s, when I first discovered Gilbert. I have to confess that it didn't make as great an impression on me as much of his other work. Part of the reason for that is that much of the book's appeal lies in its depiction of shabby post-war London, and at that time, I didn't know London at all. Another explanation is that Gilbert was writing an authentic, and fairly realistic novel about crime and corruption. He even includes an extract from a newspaper report of 1953 to emphasise the topicality of his story. But writing topical crime fiction is a risky business.

It's risky because it dates quickly, and less than twenty years after the book was published, it didn't seem - at least to my younger self- to be in the least topical. Life had moved on. In many ways, the mood of this story is in tune with the post-war black and white films often to be found on the Talking Pictures TV channel. In the 21st century, on the other hand, the book has added value as a sort of social document.

Mr Wetherall stumbles across a glorified black market racket, and finds him up against some very ruthless criminals. Gilbert shows how a decent, relatively ordinary man can find himself threatened, and find himself drawing upon unsuspected reserves of courage. (Some of his later books are in a similar vein - an outstanding example is The Crack in the Teacup, one of my favourites). I liked this book better the second time around. It's not one of his finest books, but now I can admire the smoothness of Gilbert's storytelling. He made it look so easy. .

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard - film review

I never met the late Nigel Morland, but I was in touch with him briefly prior to his death in 1986. He edited a magazine called Current Crime, which coincidentally is discussed in the latest issue of CADS. I was keen to lay my hands on copies, but although he supplied some to me, he was clearly struggling to cope with things at that point, when he must have been about 80. But he had a long and rather interesting career in crime fiction.

His real name, it seems, was Carl Van Biene, and after a spell in journalism as a teenager, he worked for a short time as Edgar Wallace's secretary. in his debut novel, The Phantom Gunman, published when he was 30, he introduced Mrs Palymyra Pym. Although he wrote under a host of pen-names, and produced a long list of books over the next four decades, Mrs Pym remained his best-known character. In 1953, he became a founder member of the CWA.

Mrs Pym made it into the movies in 1939, when Morland wrote the screenplay for Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard. This film was thought for a long time to have been lost, but it resurfaced a while ago, and I've now caught up with it on Talking Pictures. And I'm glad I did. It's decent entertainment for its period, and there's a lot of pleasure to be taken in the chauvinistic reaction of the male establishment to the arrival in a murder investigation of a female cop, Mrs Pym. What would Cressida Dick make of it, I wonder?

The story concerns the mysterious deaths of two women, who just happen to have bequeathed substantial sums to a psychical research society. A young newspaper reporter (Nigel Patrick) is sceptical about the psychics, and Mrs Pym (played with gusto by Mary Clare) suspects dark deeds. The mystery is nicely done, and I enjoyed watching it. I'm not suggesting that Morland was a great writer - I suspect he was essentially a journeyman, but there's no shame whatever in that. I get the impression of a hard-working professional who came up with a very good idea, a detective character who really was ahead of her time.  ,

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Night Visitor - film review

Even before Scandi-noir was a thing, there was The Night Visitor. A film from 1971 with a very chilly feel. If you are in the mood for cheery entertainment, be warned. This film is'n't for you. It's all about madness and murder, and Bergman's muse Liv Ullmann is in the cast. The film's alternative title is Lunatic, and there are enough shots of snowy landscapes to chill you to the marrow. And yet - it's also a sort of locked room mystery. A locked prison cell, in fact.

One winter night, an inmate called Salem (played by Max von Sydow with even more than his customary gloom) escapes from an asylum. He heads for a lonely house, where his family are bickering. Two years ago he was convicted of a murder. But was he guilty, or was the perpetrator really his brother-in-law (Per Oscarsson),? This chap is a doctor, and decidedly creepy. He's married to Liv, and they have a fractious relationship with Liv's sister.

Murder is done. The doctor sees Salem, but when the police become involved - in the extremely unlikely form of Trevor Howard - there is no evidence that Salem ever got out of the asylum. He's back in his locked cell, and there seems to have been no way that he could have got out. The detective is perplexed, and Salem continues to carry out a diabolical plan before all is finally revealed.

I found this an intriguing film, but it's also rather strange. There are some odd casting choices - not just Trevor Howard, but Rupert Davies, Arthur Hewlett, and Gretchen (EastEnders) Franklin feature in rather unlikely roles. And the music is written by Henry Mancini, though the film and soundtrack are a world away from both The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Overall, worth watching, but very slow.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Forgotten Book - The Bornless Keeper

I can remember looking at a copy of The Bornless Keeper in my local library at Northwich, not long after it was first published in 1974. The storyline on the dust jacket seemed quite interesting, but veering more towards the horror genre than crime. I didn't borrow it, and I've only recently, after all these years, come into possession of a copy.

One thing that intrigued me was that the jacket said that the Yuill name was "a pseudonym. The author does not want his real identity disclosed." A little later, Yuill produced a series of three very different books about a private eye called James Hazell. I did read those, and very entertaining they were. What's more, they were adapted for television ,with Nicholas Ball playing Hazell. And the authors were revealed to be Gordon Williams and the former footballer (who also became England football manager) Terry Venables.

The Bornless Keeper, however, was written by Williams on his own. And the copy I've acquired actually bears his signature. Williams is an unsung figure in the annals of crime fiction, and I've only just discovered that he died recently, in August. He received very respectful obituaries, but perhaps less attention than you might expect given that one of his novels was shortlisted for the very first Booker Prize. His output of fact and fiction was extremely varied - he ventured into science fiction at one point and apparently also wrote pseudonymous thrillers - and he scripted the TV version of Ruth Rendell's Tree of Hands. But he said he'd become bored with writing novels.

At his peak, though, he was a fine novelist. He was a Scot, but for a while he and his wife lived in rural Devon, and while there he wrote a novel set in the area, The Siege at Trencher's Farm, famously turned by Sam Peckinpah into the violent and controversial  Straw Dogs. Peacock Island, the setting for The Bornless Keeper, was evidently based on Brownsea Island. Williams writes evocatively about place, and numerous small touches reveal that this is an author of considerable distinction.

A weird creature seems to be running amok on the island, prompting locals on the mainland to recall the legend of the mysterious Bornless Keeper. For years, one wealthy woman has lived on the island as a recluse. But now the place seems to have been taken over by a grotesque beast with homicidal tendencies. Despite the horrific and supernatural trappings, this is indeed a crime novel, and the depiction of tensions between the investigating police officers is one of its strengths. The jacket blurb suggests that Yuill was contemplating more books, and it may be that this was meant to be the start of a series, before he decided to collaborate with Venables on the Hazell stories instead.

The inquiry is complicated by the intervention of a TV crew, who want to make a film set on the island. I didn't find their activities quite so compelling, and you don't have to be excessively sensitive to find the presentation of the female lead character unpleasant. It's a reminder that attitudes in the Seventies were very different from those prevailing today. The Bornless Keeper is an odd book, not quite like anything I've read, and far less conventional than the Hazell trilogy. But it's certainly readable, and Williams' work in the genre does not deserve the neglect into which it has fallen.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Foreign Bodies - a new British Library anthology

Over the past twenty-plus years, I've had the pleasure of compiling and editing a great many anthologies of crime writing. This year sees the publication of no fewer than five of my anthologies - four from the British Library, and the CWA collection Mystery Tour, due later in the year. But of all the anthologies I've been associated with, Foreign Bodies is one of the most exciting. And after a great deal of work behind the scenes, it finally hits the shelves tomorrow.

Classic crime fiction is usually associated in the public mind with stories written in the English language. Christie, Sayers and company in Britain, of course, and their American counterparts, the likes of Ellery Queen and C. Daly King. Few people realise how many detective stories were written in other languages at much the same time. And not only those by Georges Simenon, either.

The appeal of the detective story is worldwide,and that has long been the case. Sherlock Holmes inspired a host of writers to flatter Conan Doyle by imitation. Maurice Leblanc's stories about Arsene Lupin (which feature "Holmlock Shears",among other characters!) are quite well-known, the tales by the German Paul Rosenhayn about an American sleuth in the Holmes mould are long-forgotten. And even writers in Asia and South America were taking note of what Doyle and his successors were doing in Britain, and seeking to follow their example.

There are a number of reasons why compiling Foreign Bodies has proved quite a challenge. For a start, it's far from easy to track down some of the stories in their original forms. Acquiring the rights has sometimes been far from easy - we missed out on one intriguing "impossible crime" story aa a result of rights problems, for example - and getting the translations sorted out with a satisfying period feel has been another hurdle. Thankfully, I and the British Library have benefited from a great deal of help, in particular from John Pugmire of Locked Room International and American short story writer and translator Josh Pachter. I hope that readers find the result of our labours as fascinating to read as I have found it to put together.

Monday, 2 October 2017


The arrival of a new issue of CADS is always a cause for celebration. Geoff Bradley's "irregular magazine of comment and criticism about crime and detective fiction" has now reached issue 76. That very irregularity is one of the pleasures of CADS - one never quite knows when the next issue will arrive, a touch of quirkiness that I find very attractive.

It comes as quite a shock to me to realise that I've known Geoff for 27 years. We first met at a memorable Bouchercon in London in 1990. I'd read that there was to be a quiz about crime fiction, so I expressed an interest. What I hadn't realised was that it was to be closely modelled on BBC TV's Mastermind, and when I said that my special interest was "detectives", that meant the questions in the special round ranged far and wide. Geoff kept score, and Maxim Jakubowski set the questions. I'd never met Maxim until then either - now he is one of the CWA's two Vice Chairs and I am the Chair. Who would have predicted that? Not me.

One oft the other three contestants (the others were Sarah J. Mason, a writer with whom I'm still in touch, and Jim Huang from the States) was Tony Medawar. Tony is someone else I'd never met before that day. Since then, I think I've learned more from his researches than from the research of any other Golden Age fan, with the possible exceptions of John Curran and Barry Pike. In CADS 76, Tony is at it again, with a terrific article about "the lost cases of Lord Peter Wimsey". For any Sayers fan, that is a must-read.

As usual, there is plenty of other good stuff. Pete Johnson writes about Andrew Garve, and Barry Pike about Reggie Fortune, while Kate Jackson, who has emerged in recent times as a prolific and interesting blogger, contributes a thoughtful article about mystery fiction and individualism. Liz Gilbey and John Cooper are among a range of other knowledgeable contributors, and I was especially pleased to read John's discussion of the books of Kay Mitchell. Kay's an old friend of mine who has not published a book, sadly, for a very long time, but her work is definitely worth seeking out. I have to confess that three books of mine are reviewed in this issue, but I can promise you that isn't why I recommend this magazine. Over the years, CADS has made a contribution to research about the genre that is both unique and invaluable.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Forgotten Book - The Box Office Murders

The Box Office Murders and The Purple Sickle Murders were the original British and American titles of a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts which has now been reprinted as Inspector French and the Box Office Murders. It was first published in 1929, and although it's a murder mystery, it's not a typical Golden Age whodunit but rather a lively thriller set mainly in London.

Inspector French is consulted by a young woman called Thurza Darke (great name!) who works as a clerk in a box office. She has got herself into a tricky situation with an unscrupulous bunch of people, and seeks his guidance. He is impressed by her manner, and arranges to meet her at the National Gallery, but she doesn't turn up. Unfortunately, her body is soon found, and it appears that someone has drowned her.

French, I thought, was rather remiss in not having the girl watched for her own protection, but clearly the police did things differently in those days. I was surprised when French later indulges in burglary of a suspect's premises, and even more startled when he not only breaks in somewhere else, but enlists the support of a subordinate and the subordinate's young son in so dong. Blimey!

But these quibbles don't matter, and I enjoyed the story. It's quite fast-moving, and Crofts cleverly obscures the reality of the criminal scheme of the gang of murderers responsible for killing several young women who worked as box office clerks. Not an orthodox police procedural, by any means, but a very welcome reprint, not least because it illustrates that Crofts was a more versatile writer than he has often been given credit for. His literary style may have been plain, but I must say that the more of his work I read, the more I appreciate his considerable skills as a plotsmith.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

One and a half million...

While I was sunning myself in north Italy and Switzerland last week, relishing the charms of places like Lugano (above), and Bergamo, (below) I had the chance to reflect on how much has happened to me since I began this blog almost ten years ago. It's been an extraordinary period in my life, with the most difficult experiences (above all, the death of my mother) and much good luck. I've spent quality time with some wonderful people, and visited some fantastic places. Even as I appreciated the scenery while travelling from St Moritz to Tirano on the Bernina Experess, I found myself reflecting on the strange quirks of life. There have been plenty of those over the past decade,and more than ever before I am convinced that one simply has to make the most of the good times while one can. So, for instance, on visiting Bergamo, I decided I really had to write a story set there. And before I left that day, I'd mapped it out in my mind.

For me, making the most of things means, for example, writing the short stories and books that I believe in,rather than those I think might stand the best chance of selling in big numbers. Oddly enough, I always assumed The Golden Age of Murder would be a niche project, either produced by a small press or self-published. I still can't really get over the fact that Harper Collins took it on, and that it not only sold very well but also won four awards and was shortlisted for two others. My association with the British Library, hugely positive, also came out of the blue. It's a funny old world.

Strange as it may seem, writing this blog has never felt like hard work. More like a chat with one or two friends. That's probably why I've now written more than 2500 blog posts (blimey!) since I started out. And a couple of days ago, the blog passed the landmark of 1.5 million visits. Something else I never expected.

In my first post, I said: The aim is to share my enthusiasm for crime fiction, and the craft of writing. From childhood, I dreamed of becoming a crime novelist - and I love being part of a fascinating world. I’m not only a writer, but a fan, and I’ll have lots to say about lots of terrific and often overlooked books and films, past and present. As for my own writing life, I’ll share the frustrations - and also the pleasures. If this blog encourages any would-be writers among you to keep at it, I’ll be delighted. 

When I wrote those words, I'd never won a literary award (though I'd been a published crime novelist since 1991) and I certainly never dreamed I would become Chair of the CWA, or President of the Detection Club, let alone both. So - very fortunate indeed. I'd like to think that others can draw at least some encouragement from what I've said about my experiences on this blog. You just never know what the future may bring. And even if things don't always go well, there's always the hope that something new and good and unexpected lurks just around the corner.  

Monday, 25 September 2017

In the footsteps of Hemingway and Hesse...

I'm just back from a delightful week in north Italy and Switzerland which gave me the chance to explore Italy's very own Lake District. Quite different from the stamping ground of Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind (not least in the absence of rain!) but equally attractive. And although the English Lakes are perhaps more closely associated in the public mind with literary giants, the Italian lakes have their fair share of notable literary connections.

Our base was Moltrasio, a pleasant village on the west shore of Lake Como, not too far from the Swiss border. Across the lake, just a five minute boat ride away, is Torno, an even more picturesque place which caught the fancy of Herman Hesse when he visited the area just before the First World War. There's something quite magical about the little harbour and surrounding piazza. Thanks to a good (and cheap) day ticket system, I took a look at quite a few places on the shore of the lake, and each has its own distinct personality and charm. Como itself is an interesting city and a funicular railway takes one all the way up to Brunate, high above the waterline.

Another lake on the itinerary was Lake Maggiore, and the town of Stresa. Ernest Hemingway convalesced there after being wounded during the First World War. He stayed in the magnificent Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, which he revisited many years later. His experiences in Italy provide some of the background material for A Farewell to Arms, a book I read as a schoolboy, and which still lingers in my memory. I've not read many of his other novels; that's the one that impressed me particularly.

One of the pleasures of Stresa is that you can take a boat to the lake's fascinating islands. I found Isola Bella absolutely stunning. The gardens and the palazzo are equally magnificent. A short hop away is "Fisherman's Island", a small but bustling place crammed with bars and restaurants. Hemingway, like Hesse, knew a great place when he saw one.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Forgotten Books - The Pyx

John Buell was a Canadian academic and, it seems, quite a retiring person, who combined his day job with writing. He was far from prolific, but his work earned plenty of praise in its day. I came across mention of his debut novel The Pyx, first published in 1959, and thought it sounded interesting, so I picked up a copy - and I'm glad I did.

The premise is familiar. A young woman falls to her death from a tall building. Accident, suicide or murder? It is, of course, the same initial scenario as we find in Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling - and plenty of other books. But the material is handled with great assurance considering that the author was making his debut as a novelist. Buell wrote taut and gripping prose, and told an interesting story well.

His method is to alternate between events in the present, when Detective Henderson tries to find out what led to the death of young and beautiful Elizabeth Lucy, and events in the days leading up to her untimely demise. Elizabeth was a prostitute, addicted to heroine, and effectively a captive, at the beck and call of Meg Latimer. But Meg herself is at the mercy of ruthless men. Both women are victims.

It's a short, snappy book, and given added depth and interest by religious imagery and plot elements. Catholicism plays a central part in the story. I found this book a good,read. The mood is bleak throughout, but that didn't stop my admiring Buell's laconic style and occasional touches of wry humour. The book was adapted into a film in the 70s, starring Christopher Plummer and Karen Black. Reviews suggest that the movie isn't anything like as good as the book.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Delavine Affair - film review

The Delavine Affair is a snappy B movie from 1954 (some sources say 1955) which was based on a story called Winter Wears a Shroud, written by Robert Chapman. I've not been able to find out anything much about Chapman or the original story, but the film is a competent mystery which, like so many crime films of that era, featured some very good actors as well as the occasional rather wooden lead.

The lead in this case is Peter Reynolds, who hailed from Wilmslow, and sadly died young. Here he plays a newspaper agency man called Banner who is contacted by a hellfire preacher called Gospel Joe. But when he goes to see Joe, he finds him dead. The police turn up, having been tipped off that Joe has been mrudered, and our hero becomes the prime suspect.

He has the good fortune to be married to Honor Blackman, but she thinks he spends too much time at work, and has taken up with an admirer played by Gordon Jackson.  Banner discovers that there appears to be a connection between Joe's death and a robbery - the as yet unsolved Delavine jewel theft - which took place some time back.

Banner's investigations bring him into contact with a mixed bag of characters, played by Michael Balfour and Katie (The Ladykillers) Johnson. There are a number of pleasing plot twists, and overall this is a decent crime film, unpretentious but perfectly competent. I'd be interested to know more about Winter Wears a Shroud, if any readers of this blog are familiar with it.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Scarlet Web - 1954 movie review

The Scarlet Web is a black and white British B-movie first screened in 1954, and it's a film with a number of interesting elements in its storyline - the script was written by Doreen Montgomery. It opens with quite a novel situation. A young and attractive blonde woman (Zena Marshall) parks outside a prison. Among the prisoners released for freedom is Griffith Jones. She offers him a lift - and a proposition. Will this man with a criminal past help her and her husband, a man called Dexter, to recover a compromising document?

Unfortunately, she's made a poor choice. Jones' character isn't actually a hardened criminal at all. he's an insurance investigator who has spent the past couple of months  inside on behalf of his employers, trying to find out vital information from another prisoner.  He goes along with the plan out of curiosity. But things go pear-shaped when he's drugged by his new friend, and framed for the murder of a woman who proves to be the real Mrs Dexter.

Aided and abetted by a colleague in the insurance firm (Hazel Court), our hero tries to establish his innocence and also to figure out exactly what is going on. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Dexter has a girlfriend, and that they have conspired to murder his wife for the insurance money, but proving the truth is far from easy.

This is a lively, unpretentious little film, and the appearance of those reliable supporting actors Ronnie Stevens and Michael Balfour in cameo roles is a bonus. Jones is a rather wooden hero, but the two female leads make more of an impression. Our hero soon falls for Hazel Court, and the outcome is predictable, but overall the film offers likeable light entertainment. .

Friday, 15 September 2017

Forgotten Book - Murder Mars the Tour

My Forgotten Book today is Murder Mars the Tour, the debut novel of Mary Fitt, published in 1936. Fitt was an interesting writer, and I'm sure she was an interesting person, too. In real life she was an eminent classicist called Kathleen Freeman (1897-1959), an academic with a specialism in Greek whose first book, The Work and Life of Solon, included translated poems.

She wrote a number of scholarly articles and mainstream novels before adopting the Fitt name, and turning to crime fiction with this book. Presumably it was well received, and she proceeded to write a run of detective stories which often had something out of the ordinary about them. They weren't always successful - I'm afraid I found her last book, Mizmaze, dire - but they were often interesting, and she was well-regarded enough to earn election to the Detection Club in the early Fifties.

Murder Mars the Tour is a likeable book. As a mystery, it's slightly unorthodox, and the whodunit plot is scarcely in the Agatha Christie league. Even so, it kept me engaged from start to finish. It's narrated by a chap whose brother encourages him to go on a walking tour in Europe with a motley group of individuals who belong to the same club. During the holiday, they come across a woman whom the brother had been involved with. When a murder occurs, the plot (not before time, it must be said) begins to thicken.

The narrative voice, intelligent and rather prissy, is distinctive, and although the puzzle is nothing special, the writing is certainly proficient. I liked the atmospheric way in which the tour was described, though I was intrigued that.there was no real mention of the political difficulties that were convulsing Europe at the time. I assume that Fitt went on a tour of the kind she describes, and decided that it would make a good setting for a mystery novel. If so, she was right. I'm not suggesting that this book is a lost masterpiece; it isn't. But it did entertain me.  .

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Marilyn - 1953 film, aka Roadhouse Girl

There are several surprising things about the shortish 1953 British film Marilyn (renamed Roadhouse Girl in the US). For a start, it's a film noir in the tradition of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but quite distinctive. And I was very taken with the fact that it was based on a play (later televised) called Marion, written by Peter Jones - the same Peter Jones who became a very well known actor in later years.

The story begins with a young man, down on his luck, taking a job as a garage hand, the garage owner being a grumpy older man played by Leslie Dwyer (best known as the Punch and Judy man in Hi-De-Hi). When we learn that the old guy is married to a pretty but discontented young blonde woman (Sandra Dorne), we rather suspect that the marriage will come under strain. An added complication is that there's a housemaid called Rosie who idolises the younger woman, and is desperate for her affection.

Before long, the inevitable happens, and the old guy is killed. An inquest rules the death to be an accident. So far so good? Well, as ever in these stories when a naive chap is ensnared by a blonde femme fatale, things don't go according to plan. The femme fatale here is selfish and not very bright rather than sophisticated in her calculations, and her lover is rather less sophisticated than, say, the doomed lovers in Double Indemnity and Body Heat.

The story zips along entertainingly from start to finish. The moral standards of the time meant that the lesbian sub-text, which might have added a bit of depth, is only hinted at, and the quality of the acting, like the script, is competent rather than dazzling. All the same, I enjoyed it.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Malice Aforethought - BBC TV - 1979

Image result for hywel bennett malice aforethought

I was sorry to learn recently of the death of Hywel Bennett. I've mentioned him several times on this blog, and I always felt that he was a first-class actor, perhaps under-rated simply because in youth he was very good-looking. But he had tremendous range, and was equally good in Twisted Nerve and in Agatha Christie's Endless Night. He was also successful in comedy. But my favourite performance as his was his portrayal of Dr Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought.

I first watched that four-parter when it was screened originally in 1979. I was impressed then, and watching it again, in a grainy version on Youtube (there doesn't seem to be a DVD) I was equally impressed. Of course, it's a very fine story, which made the name of Francis Iles famous, even though nobody knew he was really Anthony Berkeley Cox, already a leading detective novelist. But Philip Mackie deserves much credit for an excellent screenplay which captures the essence of the book.

Mackie was an excellent television writer, whose other credits included The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and Praying Mantis. I've often wished I could see the latter again; it's a gripping psychological chiller, - what a shame that it, too, isn't available on DVD. Mackie also wrote successful crime plays, but I've not seen them. His writing gave Bennett the chance to present Bickleigh ia a three-dimensional way. He's not a likeable man, the doctor, but his capacity for self-deception is quite fascinating.

The cast is excellent. Judy Parfitt plays the disagreeable Mrs Bickleigh, while Cheryl Campbell is the woman the doctor becomes obsessed with, and Harold Innocent is the vicar. I'd forgotten that the inspector was played by James Grout, who went on to become Superintendent Strange, John Thaw's boss in Inspector Morse; this role was almost a rehearsal for the later part. Overall, an excellent show, and a reminder of Bennett's charisma, even when playing someone unattractive.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Forgotten Book - Night Exercise

The story of the Home Guard is truly fascinating, and it's why - in addition to great writing and superb acting - Dad's Army became such an enduringly popular sitcom. The notion of ordinary people, not able to take part in active military service for whatever reasons, banding together to defend Britain against a feared and formidable invading force, is intensely appealing. The story of the Home Guard tells us a lot about human nature.

My father was in the Home Guard. He was a young man when the Second World War began, but he wasn't able to follow his older brother into the Services because he had a "reserved occupation" as a draughtsman, and became involved in work on the Mulberry Harbours. When I was small, he told me a lot of funny stories about his time in the Home Guard, and I'm sorry that I can't remember them. He had a gift for storytelling, and I wish he'd applied it to writing fiction, but he didn't think that writers were people like us. When the first episode of Dad's Army was shown, naturally we watched it, and became instantly hooked. He was a big fan of the show, though in his sardonic way, he suggested that the reality was even crazier than the fiction.

All this explains why I was delighted when Seona Ford presented me with a copy of Night Exercise, a 1942 novel by John Rhode, which centres around Home Guard activity in a rural community. The book was called Dead of Night in the US; perhaps the American publishers feared that readers would get the wrong idea of what the book was about. The first part of the book, in fact, gives a detailed (and, by Rhode's standards, absolutely gripping) account of a Home Guard exercise overseen by a Major Ledbury. The detail is very convincing, and I feel sure Rhode must have based it on Home Guard activities he was involved with; Ledbury seems rather like a self-portrait.

Ledbury is plagued by a visiting senior officer, Chalgrove, who is so obnoxious that it is soon clear that he is destined to be murdered. And he does go missing after the exercise - but what, in fact, has really happened to him? Is he dead, or has he vanished for reasons of his own? This is an unusual Rhode book in that Dr Priestley doesn't appear. And indeed, the detective element of the story is pretty slight. If you're after an elaborate whodunit, you'd better look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a highly credible, contemporary snapshot of life in the Home Guard at a time when British people were at risk of conquest by the Nazis, you couldn't do much better than read this one.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Defence of the Realm - 1986 film review

I missed Defence of the Realm on its original release, just over 30 years ago, and I've only just caught up with it. The film is a conspiracy thriller, well-written and acted, with a truly excellent cast. As I've mentioned before, I'm very interested in the art of structuring a thriller - the sort of thing that Lee Child does with apparently effortless ease - and the narrative here is enticingly contrived.

The action begins with two young tearaways, about whom we know nothing, being pursued in their (perhaps stolen) car. It seems they are about to be apprehended when the action switches to a classic newspaper "sting". A journalist is tipped off that a leading Labour MP is to be found in compromising circumstances rather reminiscent of the Profumo Scandal. The MP (played by Ian Bannen) resigns, and that seems to be that.

But the focus then switches to a team of investigative journalists. Hard-drinking Denholm Elliott plays Bayliss, an old chum of the MP; also working on the story is Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) who suspects that there's something fishy about the MP's exposure. His suspicions become more acute when Bayliss is found dead. Is it possible that he has been silenced? If so, by whom, and why?

Although the conspiracy deals with issues current in the mid-80s, this film is much less dated than one might expect. This is because the story, even in its more routine phases, benefits from very convincing performances, especially from everyone involved at the paper - including Fulton McKay, Frederick Treves, and Bill Paterson. Greta Scacchi also plays a key part in the unravelling of the mystery, and the dramatic conclusion. A fast-moving thriller, not exactly original, but well done.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Fifty Years of The Prisoner

The Prisoner is fifty years old. In television terms, that is very old. And yet somehow it retains its power to entrance, entertain, and - sometimes - to irritate. It's an eccentric, almost uncategorisable series, one that surely could only have been conceived and made in the 1960s, that decade of extraordinary creativity and innovation.

I am old enough to have watched the very first episode, the first time it was screened. And I can therefore remember the general astonishment created by the series. To understand this, one has to know the background. Patrick McGoohan, the star of the show, was already a big name. He'd played John Drake in the highly successful series Danger Man and was often talked of as a "natural" for the role of James Bond.

I know I watched and enjoyed Danger Man as a very small boy, but I can't remember any of the stories. I think it was a conventional thriller series about a secret agent. But I suppose I was expecting The Prisoner to be a sort of variation on Danger Man, and probably everyone else was. Instead we found ourselves watching a weird show in which McGoohan becomes trapped in a strange village, where he desperately tries to find out what is going on. It was all very odd. But it made for mesmeric viewing.

Part of the pleasure, for me, came (and still comes) from knowing the village from personal experience. In real life it's Portmeirion, a fantastic resort on a sheltered Welsh coastline that I've visited a good many times, and I always find it delightful. They make a great deal of the connection with The Prisoner, and for good reason. Although it infuriated the critics back in the 60s, it became a cult success, and has remained so ever since. Long may its mysteries continue to tantalise!

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Some Lovers at The Other Palace - review

Image result for some lovers bacharach

It doesn't seem that long ago to me, but in fact it's 21 years since my agent Mandy and I went to see a London revival of the musical Promises, Promises! at the fascinating Bridewell theatre. I knew the soundtrack very well, but was intrigued finally to see the show in performance, and really enjoyed it. And the outcome was a scene in The Devil in Disguise, with the theatre transferred to Liverpool and given a fresh guise. Suffice to say that in the book, Harry Devlin loved the show as much as I did.

This week I went back to London to watch another musical, Some Lovers, at the Other Palace (so named because it's very close to Buckingham Palace - great location and a very appealing venue). The show was on a very short run, as part of a festival of new music. And I found it irresistible because it's the first musical Burt Bacharach has written since 1968, when Promises, Promises! was a big hit on Broadway and in the West End. Promises, Promises! had lyrics by the great Hal David, and a book by the very witty Neil Simon. I once went to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall where Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice explained how much they were influenced by that show. I don't suppose Some Lovers will prove quite as influential, but you never know.

What I do know is that I had a great time. The venue was very intimate, and on the front row, we were within arm's reach of the performers. The four cast members play two people. The book adapts O. Henry's story "The Gift of the Magi", and presents a couple when their relationship begins and then, twenty years later, after it has fallen apart. Yes, they are older - but are they any wiser?

The lyrics and book are by Steven Sater, best known for Spring Awakening. He was in the bar at the start of the show and I was glad of the chance to have a brief chat with him/.I thought the four performers did a good job, and I enjoyed listening to so many new songs by the great man, who is still writing terrific music. Some of the songs have already been recorded or tried out in live performance. For example, here is Rumer singing Some Lovers, and Karima singing Just Walk Away. The Italian version of Every Other Hour has already been a success for Karima and Mario Biondi. Among other excellent tracks, I'd single out  the terrific Welcome to My World, which was the highlight for me of a very enjoyable night. Will Some Lovers find its way into another mystery novel one day? Don't bet against it!

Friday, 1 September 2017

Forgotten Book - Inspector French's Greatest Case

Freeman Wills Crofts published Inspector French's Greatest Case in 1924. It was his fifth book in five years. Already he'd enjoyed considerable success, especially with his best-selling debut, The Cask, and he hadn't troubled to create a series character. The title of this novel suggests that he didn't contemplate that Inspector French would be anything other than a one-trick pony. But things often don't work out as authors expect. In fact, French became a popular detective and Crofts continued to write about him to the end of his life, more than 30 years later.

The opening of the story is relatively conventional - it even reminded me, very distantly, of Gaboriau's The Blackmailers. A firm of diamond merchants is robbed, and a man named Gething is killed by whoever was responsible. Inspector Joseph French of the Yard is called in, but at first his determined inquiries get nowhere.

French, however, is made of stern stuff. He's known as "Soapy Joe" at the Yard, in reference to his habit of charming witnesses and suspect into telling him what he needs to know. We get a few insights into his domestic life - in moments of difficulty, he confides in his wife  Emily, who comes up with suggestions about how to tackle some of the puzzles he confronts. We also learn, in a gruff moment, that he lost his eldest son in the war. This is a book, like many others of the Golden Age, in which the shadow of the conflict looms, even though years had passed since the Armistice.

The plot is convoluted, and the planning of the crime turns out to have been as meticulous as French's investigation of it. French manages to pack in quite a lot of overseas travel, and Crofts' handling of the travelogue-type scenes suggest he was a seasoned and enthusiastic traveller. I very much enjoyed this book, and I'm glad that its recent reissue in paperback makes it widely available once again.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Return of Notable British Trials

Regular readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for true crime cases, and books about them. It's this interest that fuelled my novel Dancing for the Hangman, my non-fiction book Urge to Kill, and my CWA anthology Truly Criminal. And I've enjoyed many fascinating conversations with criminologists - only the other day I had a very pleasant lunch with someone who did ground-breaking research on the legendary Wallace case, and who turns out to live just a few miles away.

Given all that, I was naturally delighted to learn from Kate Clarke that the Notable British Trials series of books is to enjoy a new lease of life, after a hiatus lasting more than half a century. This is, I imagine, another spin-off of changes within the publishing industry, and the economics of publishing, and very welcome it is. The new publishers, taking a licence from the rights owners, are Mango Books, evidently a young and forward- looking company.

Adam Wood, who runs Mango, told me: "One of the intriguing parts of identifying cases which should be added to the NBT series is whether a transcript of the trial is available. We prepared a list of cases which were obvious omissions in the original series, but on further investigation realised that none existed in the obvious places and that's probably why William Hodge didn't include them. Thankfully, with the British Newspaper Archives now available online, we are able to access contemporary newspaper reports of trials, many of which are very detailed. This means we're able to piece together a trial without a formal transcript, or at least a complete one. It's been a lot of fun walking in the footsteps of the likes of William Roughead and W. Teignmouth Shore."

The first title in the series will be The Trial of Israel Lipski, to be edited by experienced true crime writer M.W. Oldridge. Two more forthcoming titles will feature a pair of railway-related mysteries - more "blood on the tracks"! I've read a number of the original books in the series, and found them very helpful with a range of projects, as well as fascinating in their own right. So I'm certainly awaiting the publication of the new titles with eager anticipation. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling - BBC TV review

Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling, screened last night, opened a new seven-part private eye series based on the books of Robert Galbraith. As all the world now knows, Galbraith is a pen-name, and it conceals the identity of J. K. Rowling. But the secret was kept, not only until publication day, but for weeks thereafter, until an incautious leak revealed the truth.

Rowling has long been a detective fiction fan, and she's been quoted expressing admiration for predecessors such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. And there are plenty of parallels between her hero, Cormoran Strike, and Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey - and not just the fact they both have odd names. Both are sons of the rich, both attended Oxford, both have fought in war, and suffered because of it. Wimsey was shell-shocked; Strike lost his leg in Afghanistan.

The cleverness of this BBC version of Rowling's first novel, lies in the casting of Tom Burke as Strike. He captures the character superbly, on the evidence of this first episode, just the right mix of scruffiness and that dogged determination displayed by all the best detectives. There was a classic scene in this episode, when a suave lawyer (the always dependable Martin Shaw) tries to warn Strike off. We've seen this kind of thing a thousand times before, but these two actors handled the situation in compelling fashion.

When I read the book, I thought that it was enjoyable but over-long, and the early signs are that the discipline of TV adaptation will be good for it. The mystery concerns the apparent suicide of a supermodel, and the scenario of a supposed suicide that may just be murder is again very familiar to fans of the genre. But Burke, and Holliday Grainger, who plays his newly arrived assistant, make a very likeable team, and I'm looking forward to episode two.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Forgotten Book - The Conjure-Man Dies

The Detective Story Club imprint has, since its welcome recent revival by Harper Collins, seen some fascinating titles come back to life. I've enjoyed my own involvement, writing intros for books by authors as diverse as Hugh Conway, Edgar Wallace, and E.C. Bentley, and I've enjoyed equally reading some books that are entirely new to me, by authors such as Vernon Loder.

A particular example is The Conjure-Man Dies, sub-titled "A Harlem Mystery". The author is Rudolph Fisher, and there is an excellent intro by that very fine writer Stanley Ellin, who is perhaps best remembered for his brilliant short stories, although he was no mean novelist. As he says, the book is "highly readable, wholly entertaining."

The book was, as far as is known, the first detective novel written by an African-American. His name was Rudolph Fisher, and he had previously one mainstream novel. By profession, he was a doctor, and his interest in the potential of science as an aid to detection is very much in tune with the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and Richard Austin Freeman in Britain. The reason that, despite his considerable gifts as a writer, his name has been more or less forgotten, is that he died all too young. He was born in 1897, this book appeared in 1932, and he died in 1934. Very sad.

The story is a good one, dealing with the death, in exotic and highly mystifying circumstances, of Frimbo, a "psychist". The official detective, Perry Dart, is assisted by John Archer, a doctor, in a pleasing variation on the Holmes-Watson partnership: both are good characters. This edition carries an extremely welcome bonus, a short story called "John Archer's Nose" which was published just after Fisher's death. As Ellin says, this novel offers not merely a good mystery puzzle but also a fascinating social document. Recommended.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Every Secret Thing - 2015 film review

Laura Lippman is a crime writer of the highest calibre, and so I watched the recent film version of Every Secret Thing, based on her book of the same name, with great interest. I expected a strong story, and I wasn't disappointed. There aren't many major characters, but a clever storyline springs a series of surprises that help to reveal crucial elements of the protagonists' personalities.

The present day story links in with a crime in the past - the abduction and killing of a baby by two young girls. Those girls, Ronnie and Alice, are convicted, and eventually released, and the focus is on how their past actions continue to affect their lives, and the lives of those around them. There's a similarity here with the concept of Alex Marwood's enjoyable novel Wicked Girls, but the two stories are very different, though equally compelling.

When a young girl goes missing in the neighbourhood where both Ronnie and Alice are based, the police are immediately suspicious. Elizabeth Banks is very good as the cop with a personal stake in the case, while Diane Lane gives a subtle performance as Alice's mother. At first we regard her as loving and kind, but the complexity of her attitudes towards the two girls become increasingly apparent.

As Ronnie and Alice, Dakota Fanning and (especially) Diane Macdonald are very well cast. Ronnie's background is apparently less privileged than Alice's, but in reality, both of them are damaged people. I've seen some fairly negative reviews of this film, but as the truth is gradually revealed, I found myself increasingly impressed. It is a relatively short film, and its psychological intensity makes it, in my opinion, both watchable and thought-provoking.

Payroll - 1961 film review

I was urged to watch Payroll by book dealer Jamie Sturgeon, and what a good recommendation it turned out to be. Filmed around Newcastle and Gateshead, and released in 1961, it anticipates Get Carter, a much more renowned gangster movie set in the north east, but makes compelling viewing. Part of this is due to an excellent script by George Baxt, based on a book by Derek Bickerton, and part to excellent acting from a cast that includes Billie Whitelaw, Kenneth Griffiths, Michael Craig, Tom Bell, and Glyn Houston.

It's a heist movie, as the title implies (the film's alternative title, I Promise to Pay, doesn't make much sense to me). A large business changes its payroll security arrangements, much to the dismay of a gang of robbers, led by Craig and including the menacing Bell in an early role as well as the flaky Griffiths. They have persuaded the firm's accountant, played by William Lucas, to help them - his' motive is to earn more money so as to keep his beautiful but demanding foreign wife (played, very well, by Francoise Prevost) happy. The new security system seems invincible, but Craig is determined to go on with his plan.

The result is tragic - in the raid on an armoured van, one member of the security team loses his life. His widow, played by Whitelaw with her customary intensity, determines to avenge him. Meanwhile, the robbers have lost one of their own men, and they soon begin to fall out among themselves. Further complications arise when Craig starts to take an interest in Prevost, whose role in the story proves to be pivotal.

The story is gripping, but the script also has depth, and the characterisation is subtler than I'd expected. Bell and Griffiths come to a very sticky end, quite literally, and the final scenes involving Craig and Prevost make for a suitably dramatic conclusion. I really enjoyed this one. The black and white location shots are highly atmospheric, and all in all, Id' say it's a hidden gem. Strongly recommended.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Blood on the Tracks

I'm delighted to announce that I have been compiling an anthology of railway mysteries for the British Library. My work is now more or less completed, and the book will be published in the first half of next year. The title? Blood on the Tracks.

Trains and rail travel make a great setting for a mystery, and there are countless examples, ranging from Murder on the Orient Express to The Girl on the Train (to say nothing of Sleeping Car to Trieste, which I reviewed here last week.) And short train mysteries are also great fun - example that have been included in previous BL anthologies include "Beware of the Trains" by Edmund Crispin, in Miraculous Mysteries, and John Oxenham's "A Mystery of the Underground" in Capital Crimes.

I've even been responsible for one train story myself - "Bad Friday", included in the recent American anthology Busted!, a collection of law enforcement mysteries published by Level Best. That one was inspired by a train journey I took in real life, and last week I sought further inspiration by taking time out for a trip on one of Britain's best preserved railways, the Severn Valley line.

Stopping overnight in Shropshire enabled us to make the most of the day, starting the journey from Bridgnorth and travelling all the way to Kidderminster, before halting on the way back for a look round Bewdley, a pleasant Worcestershire town I've never visited before, which has an excellent free museum. The line tracks the Severn, and it really did make for a pleasant day out, rounded off by another, albeit very short rail trip - on Bridgnorth's Cliff Railway (shades of John Rowland!) All great fun, and nobody got murdered, either.

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.