Monday, 19 March 2018

Blogging about Veronica's Room

Writing, as I've said often enough, is a tough game. But I've always believed that the pleasures and rewards far outweigh the downsides. And that's true of writing a blog. The rewards aren't financial, of course, because I don't take advertisements on this blog, and I don't intend to. The aim here is simply to share some of my enthusiasms. But the rewards are often unexpected, and are particularly gratifying when they take the form of unexpected contacts from readers.

I've had many happy experiences of such contacts, and the other day I received a comment from Tonya on a post dating back five and a half years, no less. It was a post about Ira Levin's play Veronica's Room  and it was a bittersweet moment when I realised that the first comment came from my friend and fellow blogger Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona, whose life was so sadly cut short by cancer.

Unlike Maxine, I'd never had the chance to watch a performance of the play, but Tonya kindly drew my attention to a Youtube video of a performance in which she took part, back in 1994. And I grabbed the first chance I had to watch it. Good old Youtube!

It's a very creepy play indeed (I see from the internet that a few years back, Harvey Weinstein was planning to film it...) and won't be to everyone's taste, for sure. It wasn't a big hit, unlike Levin's Deathtrap, which was more light-hearted, but I find the games that Levin plays with notions of identity truly fascinating. I like crime stories where people are not who they seem, and this is an extremely intriguing example. I'm so glad that Tonya got in touch.

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Reckless Moment - 1949 film review

Eight years ago (blimey!) I reviewed on this blog The Deep End, a film starring Tilda Swinton and based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Blank Wall. I was underwhelmed by that version of the story, I'm afraid, but when the chance came along to watch an earlier movie adaptation of the book, I decided to take a look. And I'm glad I did.

The Reckless Moment, released in 1949 is a domestic film noir of real merit. Joan Bennett, in her day quite a star, plays Lucia, a wife and mother who is preoccupied by family responsibilities at a time when her beloved husband is working abroad. She's a bossy mum, really, constantly chiding her son about his clothes, and taking it upon herself to tell an unpleasant unsuitable man who is seeing her 17 year old daughter that he must stop. She is even willing to offer him money to make himself scarce. It's not my idea of great parenting, and it doesn't work well. The chap, who is admittedly loathsome, turns up at the family home, where he and Lucia's daughter quarrel. She strikes him and then runs for it, and in a freak accident he winds up dead.

Lucia discovers his body, and in another desperately unwise move, decides to conceal the death. Needless to say, things soon start to unravel. The body is found, and the police start a murder hunt. Meanwhile, an unsavoury duo who have got hold of the girl's letters to the deceased set about blackmailing Lucia.

This is where the film becomes interesting, and it's all due to the relationship between James Mason, one of the bad guys, and Lucia. He finds himself falling in love with her, while she desperately tries to raise the money to buy him and his partner off. Although Mason's character behaves with improbable decency, he is such a charismatic actor that it's not too hard to suspend disbelief, while Lucia's valiant determination to keep her family safe makes up for her intermittent recklessness. A well-made film, and one I enjoyed rather more than The Deep End.

Forgotten Book - Invisible Weapons

Image result for invisible weapons john rhode

Invisible Weapons, first published in 1938, is one of John Rhode's innumerable mysteries; it's been hard to find for many years, but has now reappeared in a new paperback edition from Harper Collins. Rhode fans will, I'm sure, be absolutely delighted, as the chances of finding a first edition in decent nick at an affordable price are negligible. And it's a story which, in many ways, strikes me as typical of Rhode, both in terms of his strengths and his weaknesses.

Let's take the strengths first. The book is divided into two parts, and concerns two distinct crimes (although it's surely not a spoiler to reveal that there is a connection between them). The first victim is an elderly man, who is murdered in highly mysterious circumstances in the home of a doctor, while a police officer is present in the house. It's a locked room killing, and nobody can figure out how the crime was committed, even though there are strong reasons to suspect the doctor, who has been living beyond his means, and whose wife was the deceased's heir.

When the riddle is finally solved by Dr Lancelot Priestley, it turns out to be a variation of an old trick, but very pleasingly handled. There's also a complicated puzzle about the death of a rich and soon-to-be-married man in the second half of the book. Once again, Rhode deals with the mechanics of the crime in an assured way. He was a man with a practical turn of mind, and like Dorothy L. Sayers, he was rather more interested in howdunit than whodunit.

But, unlike Sayers, he had no ambitions as a literary stylist, and therefore the culprit's ingenious m.o. is the focus of interest. The culprit's character and motivation are of very subordinate importance, and here, as so often with Rhode, I found this a little frustrating. A murderer who indulges in such over-elaboration really deserves to have his crime investigated by a sleuth as formidable as Priestley!

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Essex Book Festival 2018

I spent last week-end taking part in Essex Book Festival. As the name suggests, the Festival involves events all around the county, but I was in Southend-on-Sea for a week-end focusing on crime fiction. It's a long way from Cheshire to Southend, but I accomplished the drive quite easily, only for my car to become immobilised in Southend. Cue a visit from the AA breakdown truck and then a frantic drive to a main dealer to get my key battery fixed - only to find the problem recurred when I returned to Southend. Apparently there are 'problems with electronics' in the vicinity of the hotel where I was staying. I can only assume that Russian hackers are to blame!

Anyway, after this drama, I was more than ready for a drink or three, and spent a convivial evening in the company of Festival organisers and fellow writers, among them Seona Ford, Camilla Shestopal, David Whittle, and Ruth Dudley Edwards. The following morning, David, Ruth, and I took part in a panel chaired by Seona which celebrated the life and work of Edmund Crispin. Later, I attended a talk by David - who wrote an excellent biography of Crispin - about the man behind the books (and the music he wrote under his real name, Bruce Montgomery).

This allowed plenty of time for a bracing walk to the end of Southend's amazing pier - the longest pleasure pier in the world, more than twice the length of two piers I know well, those at Southport and Llandudno. I rather like Southend, and it will feature as one of the settings in my next novel, of which more news (I hope) fairly soon.

On Sunday, I chaired a panel featuring three authors who contributed to Mystery Tour, the CWA anthology: Paul Gitsham, Jeanette Hewitt, and Christine Poulson. We talked about a wide range of subjects concerning the ups and downs of the crime writing life, and it was a good deal of fun, as I think the photo (taken by Cheryl Shorter) makes clear. The Festival is very well organised, and I warmly recommend it.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Beast in the Cellar - 1970 film review

In the green and pleasant English countryside, someone is killing soldiers from a local military base in an especially gruesome way. Is a wild animal responsible, or is something even more sinister going on? This is the premise of a 1970 film written and directed by James Kelley, The Beast in the Cellar. The title is something of a plot giveaway, and needlessly unsophisticated given that Kelley was aiming for something relatively ambitious.

After the first killing, we're introduced to two elderly sisters who live together in a secluded old house, not far away from the base. They have connections with the military through their father, a former war hero. One of the sisters, played by Flora Robson, is the dominant one of the pair, looking after Beryl Reid, an affectionate but not very bright character, rather under her sister's thumb.

Robson and Reid were both very good actors, and one of the features of this film is that the cast is a cut above the average. Tessa Wyatt, hugely popular in those days, not least with me, plays a young nurse, and T.P, McKenna is the detective trying to solve the case. The body count begins to rise. But who has a grudge against the young soldiers?

The plot twists are fairly predictable. Kelley was, I feel sure, trying to combine suspense with a character-driven drama, but he falls rather between two stools. The film is certainly watchable, as you'd expect with such a cast, and a lively score by Tony Macaulay is a bonus - there's even a song performed by, believe it or  not, Ediston Lighthouse. But it's a very talky piece of work, and more of a not very horrific horror film than a crime story. Rural Britain provides plenty of scope for dark drama, just as it does for traditional mysteries, but this film, although it has merits, is really a missed opportunity. .

Monday, 12 March 2018

Blood on the Tracks - out now!

Railways have, for some mysterious reason, long been associated with crime fiction. Is it something to do with the feeling of rage that commuters feel when their train is delayed, or doesn't turn up? Or is there perhaps some subtler explanation? Whatever the truth of it, I'm delighted to say that the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of vintage mysteries themed around the railways is now available.

Blood on the Tracks (a title I found irresistible, even though I'm not the world's biggest Dylan fan) is quite a chunky volume, I'm glad to say, and I hope that its contents are sufficiently varied to appeal to the broad range of taste of Crime Classics enthusiasts. I called in at the British Library shop last week, the day copies went on sale there, and several were sold during my stay of a few minutes, which augurs quite well.

As in the past when compiling anthologies for this series, I've mixed well-known stories and authors with less renowned counterparts. But when researching the book, I found that a striking number of high-calibre authors had tried their hand at railway mysteries, and even though I'd included examples in previous anthologies, by the likes of John Oxenham and Edmund Crispin, there were still plenty to choose from.

So there are quite a number of famous names in the book, from Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers to the two Michaels, Innes and Gilbert. And among the more obscure titles is "The Railway Carriage" by F. Tennyson Jesse, a writer I find very interesting and whose life and work  I've been researching extensively this past year. Doug Greene's collection of her complete Solange Fontaine stories, incidentally, is most enjoyable. 

Friday, 9 March 2018

Forgotten Book - Death Runs on Skis

Recently I had the opportunity to acquire a signed copy of Death Runs on Skis by Hetty Ritchie, a book and author I confess I'd never heard of. A quick check of Al Hubin's monumental bibliography indicated that this was her one and only novel, dating from 1935, but further information was almost impossible to find. This copy didn't have a dust jacket, but I seized the chance to acquire it, partly because the title intrigued me, and partly because I'm always fascinated by the "singleton" detective story - I can never help wondering why an author, having managed to publish one novel, never returned to the fray. It's a topic to which I devote a chapter in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

I began to read the book and was impressed by the first chapter, partly because of the lively narrative voice. The story is told by Gerda, a young woman of German heritage, who lives in Scotland, and who has been looked after by her Uncle Angus. But now Angus is dead, and a kindly lawyer breaks the news that his estate is worth very little. But Angus has left a mysterious letter to Gerda...

I have a weakness for inheritance stories, but it soon became clear that this book isn't exactly an inheritance story, and it's not a Golden Age whodunit. Rather, it's an adventure story about a hunt for lost treasure. Gerda enlists the help of two young men as she embarks on an audacious plan to retrieve the treasure, but she soon finds herself in danger, since someone else is also pursuing the same objective. Much of the story is set in the Swiss Alps, and the setting, and the ski-ing which plays an important part in the action is well described.

I discovered that Lucius Books of York are selling a copy with an excellent dust jacket, and with their assistance I was able to look at the jacket blurb, from which I learned that the mysterious author was herself a ski-ing expert. But why didn't Hetty write any more crime fiction? She certainly could write, that's for sure. The style is light and entertaining, even if the plot is pretty basic. If anyone can offer a solution to the puzzle, I'd be delighted.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Spaniard's Curse - 1958 film review

I sat down to watch The Spaniard's Curse without high hopes, to be honest. The title didn't inspire much confidence, but the Talking Pictures TV channel has dug up are some hidden gems, and I was taken by surprise when the opening credits revealed that Kenneth Hyde's screenplay was based on a story by Edith Pargeter. And that, of course, was the real name of an author I've long admired - Ellis Peters.

The original story is, in fact, a novella, "The Assize of the Dying"; I hadn't even realised that it had been turned into a film. It's a reminder that she was doing very good work long before the era of Brother Cadfael. And the story is certainly a good one, a cut above many of the other short black and white British movies of the 50s.

We begin with a jury worrying over its verdict in a murder trial. Stevenson, the accused (Basil Dignam, in relatively early and untypical role) is ultimately found guilty, and when asked if he has anything to say, he uses the formula of an ancient Spanish curse on the judge (Michael Hordern), prosecuting counsel, and jury foreman. Hence the melodramatic title, although I feel it is  much inferior to The Assize of the Dying, which strikes me as genuinely evocative.

Soon both Stevenson and the jury foreman die, and attention focuses on the judge and his domestic circle, comprising his dashing journalist son (Tony Wright, who played Jack Havoc in the film version of The Tiger in the Smoke), his ward (Susan Beaumont, an attractive young woman whose screen career was bafflingly brief) and her new boyfriend (Canadian actor Lee Patterson). Hordern gives an excellent performance in quite a challenging role.

The set-up of the story is full of promise, and there's a very pleasing red herring which fooled me completely for a while. After that, it faltered a little, and personally I felt that had something to do with Patterson's lack of charisma. The ending also felt a bit rushed. On the whole, though, I found this an entertaining film, a little different from the run-of-the-mill, and it's worth a look if you get the chance.


The Hatton Garden Job and Freehold (aka Two Pigeons) - movie reviews

Two short, recent films today. Both have their moments, but not enough to live up to the potential of their storylines. And despite short running times, they both felt a bit too long, which rather said it all. The Hatton Garden Job disappointed me more, because the true story on which it's based is so remarkable - an extraordinarily lucrative heist carried out by a small gang of veteran criminals. Despite the arrests and convictions that followed, questions about the crime remain.

This film makes up answers to some of those questions, inventing a character played by Matthew Goode who is hired to do job by a glamorous female Hungarian gangster, played rather improbably by Joely Richardson. We never really learn enough about either character to become fully engaged with them, and I was amused by one negative review which compared Richardson's performance to that of a frazzled magician's assistant. Well, it isn't her finest hour, but I remain a fan of hers.

The snag with a heist movie is that it is easy to fall into the trap of following a formula: the gang is assembled, the heist is carried out, and then things go wrong. This film doesn't do anything original with those elements, even though the gang members, including the excellent David Calder, are a likeable bunch - much more likeable than their real life counterparts, no doubt.

A couple of days after watching this, I came across Ambush in Leopard Street, a 1962 B-movie about a diamond heist in London. Apart from Bruce Seton (aka Fabian of the Yard) the cast was as forgettable as the script, but really there wasn't any less to it than there was to The Hatton Garden Job, even though the new film looks much flashier.

Freehold, also known as Two Pigeons (I wonder why they changed the title... or perhaps I don't!), is a revenge thriller, a black comedy, including scenes which will appeal to connoisseurs of the repellent. Having met a few young London estate agents some years back, the idea of one of their number getting an overdue come-uppance is, I'm sorry to say, rather appealing, but again I didn't think the script fulfilled its theoretical promise. I did, however, think that the ending was pretty good, and rather better than the lead-up to it.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Blanche Fury - 1948 film review

Blanche Fury, a 1948 historical melodrama starring Stewart Granger and Valerie Hobson, was based on a book of the same name by Joseph Shearing published nine years earlier. The Shearing pseudonym was used by Marjorie Bowen, a highly prolific and undoubtedly accomplished writer, and the Shearing stories were typically based on real life historical cases. For instance, Airing in a Closed Carriage is based on the Maybrick case.

Blanche Fury was inspired by a real life case rather less well-known than the Maybrick case, although quite notorious in its day. This was the double murder at Stanfield Hall in Norwich in 1848, when a father and son were shot dead by a tenant farmer. The details of the case are significantly changed in the film, not least in the transposition of the setting to Staffordshire, but perhaps the most significant change is the focus on the title character, played by Hobson.

Blanche is a strong woman, well-born but poor, who yearns for position and affluence. She is doing drudge work as a companion when she's contacted by Simon Fury, who wants her to come to Clare Hall, and look after his grand-daughter, Lavinia. Lavinia's father is played by Michael Gough, and he takes a shine to Blanche. But so, unfortunately, does the much more charismatic Philip Thorn (Granger) who believes he is the rightful owner of Clare, and has been denied his inheritance by the unfairness of the laws on illegitimacy.

There's a doom-laden feeling to the story, which proceeds at a sombre pace. By modern standards, the presentation of a gang of villainous gypsies seems like a classic example of unpleasant stereotyping, but leaving that issue aside, the story is quite a good one. It is, as I say, more of a melodrama than a murder mystery, but it's quite watchable The script was co-written by Audrey Erskine Lindop, who would later write I Start Counting, a novel which also became a successful film..

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Forgotten Book - Love Lies Bleeding

Image result for edmund crispin love lies bleeding

I'm reading up on Edmund Crispin at the moment. It's always a pleasure to read such an entertaining writer, and the forthcoming Essex Book Festival, when I'll be taking part in a panel (with, among others, Crispin's biographer David Whittle) focused on Crispin's work. It will be a long journey to Southend, but I had a great time at the Festival a couple of years back, and I'm looking forward to this one.

Anyway, what about the book? Well, Love Lies Bleeding was published in 1948, and it's an excellent example of the traditional detective novel. Crispin offers all the classic ingredients - an elaborate alibi, more deaths than one, an appealing amateur detective, a chase, and clever fair-play clueing. There's plenty of humour, and literary heritage plays a central part in the storyline. Yes, you can take it than I'm a fan of this book, even if the complications of the plot do take some explaining at the end.

The book has a school setting, like so many vintage mysteries: Gladys Mitchell, Nicholas Blake, James Hilton, Agatha Christie, and R.C.Woodthorpe among others all saw the potential of the school (and I mean, of course, the fee-paying private/public school, not a state school of the kind I attended) as a setting for a murder mystery. It provides for a "closed circle" of suspects, and also a setting in which tensions and jealousies can erupt into violence.

Gervase Fen has been invited to give a speech at Castrevenford School, a boys' school, and his arrival coincides with the mysterious disappearance of a girl from the local girls' school. Soon, two murders are committed, and Fen fears for the safety of the missing girl. Superintendent Stagge is all too grateful for his help, and the plot thickens further when a young man on a walking tour discovers a third body. It's all done with rare skill. My only regret is that Crispin's active career as a crime novelist was so short. 

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Villain - 1971 film review

Villain is a British gangster movie made around the same time as Mike Hodges' Get Carter. If anything, it boasts an even better cast, led by Richard Burton, Ian McShane, Nigel Davenport, Donald Sinden, T.P. McKenna, Joss Ackland, and Colin Welland. The script, rather bizarrely, was written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais (more commonly associated with sitcoms), as well as an American writer. And the unsubtle soundtrack, I'm afraid, isn't a patch on Roy Budd's music for Get Carter. But it's an intriguing film, well worth watching, and based on a novel by James Barlow called The Burden of Proof.

Burton plays Vic Dakin, a sociopathic gay gang leader who is devoted to his mother but also susceptible to outbursts of violent temper. Evidently he was modelled on the Krays, His lover is Wolfie, played by McShane. Casting these two very charismatic male actors as a gay pair must have been a very audacious decision in 1971, and perhaps the audiences of that time weren't ready for it. Apparently a gay sex scene between the two men was cut from the film, but several rather nastily violent scenes were left in. Some of the violence in films (and even TV) in the Seventies seems very graphic and shocking when I watch it now. And the portrayal of pretty young women as sex objects is not only crude but also uninteresting. At least Britt Ekland was memorable in Get Carter..

Dakin and his crew get involved in an armed robbery that goes wrong, and the rest of the film deals with the consequences of the crime, as the cops, led by Davenport and Welland, pursue the bad guys with affable remorselessness. Sinden plays a crooked MP, alleged by some to be reminiscent of the late Lord Boothby, whom Wolfie blackmails into providing an alibi for Dakin.

This is a far from perfect film, for a variety of reasons, and not only because Burton's version of a Cockney accent is rather...well, Welsh. Get Carter is, in my opinion, a more sophisticated and effective film, but despite my reservations I must admit that I found myself quite gripped by Villain. The script is interesting, but really it's the star quality of the principal actors that stands out. . 

Monday, 26 February 2018

Fire in the Thatch - Lorac is back again!

Fire in The Thatch: A Devon Mystery (British Library Crime Classics) by [Lorac, E. C. R. ]

Just over a month ago, I was delighted to report the republication, the first for many a long year, of E.C.R. Lorac's Bats in the Belfry. I've been very glad to learn from the British Library that the book has sold really well, and has already been reprinted. Quite something. And this more than vindicates the decision the Library took last year to acquire the rights to a second Lorac title, which has also now been published.

Fire in the Thatch has a rural setting, and so is very different in that respect, as well as in terms of plot, from Bats in the Belfry. In the early years of her career, Lorac often set her books in London, whereas later on, especially after she relocated to the Lune Valley, her main focus was on life (and death) in the countryside. The cover artwork of this particular edition strikes me as delightful, and very much in keeping with many readers' impression of Golden Age fiction.

There's no doubt that setting does influence the way one writes a novel. My first eight books all had urban backgrounds, seven in Liverpool, one in London, and when my new editor said he'd like me to consider a new series with a rural setting, I wasn't sure about it. In fact, I'm really glad I took up the challenge, and I'm sure that Lorac also enjoyed a change of scene for her crime stories. I don't want to give any spoilers in relation to Fire in the Thatch, but if you read it, you'll see that it is structured rather differently from Bats in the Belfry. Lorac was a more versatile writer than many people realise.

It will be interesting to see how Fire in the Thatch is received. My hope is that more Loracs will be republished, and there are certainly plenty of titles to choose from. The enthusiasm of readers for vintage crime stories seems, if anything, to be growing. The good news is that there are still plenty of titles out there waiting for someone to publish them...

Friday, 23 February 2018

Forgotten Book - The Doors Open

I've read Michael Gilbert's novel The Doors Open three times. First, when I was about 13 or 14 and was reading it purely as a light thriller. Second, when I'd qualified as a solicitor, and had become familiar with the legal case that Gilbert references in the book, and which may have inspired part of the plot. And third, recently, when I wanted to see how it stood up to the test of time .Each time, I found it an enjoyable read.

The Doors Open was Gilbert's third book, and first appeared in 1949. At that time, he was finding his way as a crime writer, although his smooth and readable style was already much in evidence. He'd begun with a classic detective puzzler, then followed with a thriller, and he would continue to ring the changes with his novels for about half a century. This versatility is admirable, in my view, though it may have meant that he never became quite such a household name as his gifts would have suggested.

The stern critics Barzun and Taylor regard this book as "his least satisfactory work", but I don't agree. On the contrary, it begins with an intriguing prologue, which relates to the theme of the book rather than the storyline itself, and then moves on to an equally intriguing chance encounter between a likeable young accountant and a middle-aged man who is contemplating suicide. The latter is subsequently found dead, and the police take little interest. But there is something suspicious about the case, and the young accountant starts to dig deeper. Before long, his curiosity puts his life in jeopardy.

A wide range of characters come into the story, including Nap Rumbold (who would go on to star in Death Has Deep Roots), Angus McCann, who had taking a lead role in Gilbert's previous novel, and Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, Different people take centre stage at different times. Stucturally, therefore, the book is rather unorthodox, but although this method of telling a story is risky, in my opinion Gilbert gets away with it, simply because he is such an accomplished entertainer. Worth seeking out.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Peter Lovesey - Beau Death - book review

Beau Death (Peter Diamond Mystery Book 17)
Peter Lovesey is one of those writers - his friends Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard were among the others - whose crime novels I read and enjoyed long before meeting the author in person. I've followed his career closely for a long time, and although I've not read everything he's written, there aren't many gaps. He's a wonderful entertainer, and it was a pleasure as well as a privilege to interview him about his long career at Crimefest last year.

All this is by way of preamble to the news that he recently published his latest novel, another entry in the very popular Peter Diamond series. It's called Beau Death, and given that the Diamond series is set in Bath, you don't have to be a detective to figure out that the fascinating historical character of Beau Nash plays a significant part in the story, even though it is very much an up-to-the-minute contemporary mystery. There's even a scene set at an infinity pool.

The story opens with a dramatic discovery during the course of a house demolition. A skeleton is found, seated on a chair and in 18th century dress. Peter Diamond finds himself investigating the potentially the coldest of cases, and we learn a great deal about Nash, someone about whom I'd previously known very little. As well as supplying a reminder of the author's fascination with history, it's all very interesting. Of all British crime writers at work at present, I doubt if any supply more background information than Peter Lovesey, with the possible exception of Stephen Booth, and I'm pretty sure that for some of their fans, that is an important part of their books' appeal.

For me, Peter Lovesey's characterisation, humour, and plotting are key, and I'm glad to report that these elements are here in abundance. It's quite a long book, and one of the reasons for this is that the plot is deceptively elaborate, so that one never quite knows what is coming next. I have to admit that I was fooled by the final twist, and not for the first time by this admirable writer. And I should also add that there are plenty of incidental delights, including a witness who has a thing about the Royal Family, and a host of amusing set-pieces.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Mr Bowling is Back!

Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper Hardcover  by

I'm delighted that Harper Collins have republished Donald Henderson's Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper in their splendid Detective Story Club series. It's an interesting book by an extremely interesting author. And it was lauded by, among others, Raymond Chandler. He referred to the book in his famous essay "The Simple Art of Murder", and separately he said: "I think it is one of the most fascinating books written in the last ten years."

Many years ago, it was Chandler's essay that caused me to search out the book, but it wasn't easy to find. He pointed out that it hadn't sold many copies, and added "There is something wrong with the book business". Well, the book business is certainly odd at times, and always unpredictable. Henderson was unlucky, although at last he's receiving his due, a nicely produced and very reasonably priced hardback reprint.

I hope the book does really well, because Henderson and his work deserve to be better known. Another book of his, Goodbye to Murder, was published as a Pan paperback, but other than that I'd never seen any of his other novels until last year, when I came across several. And my interest has in part been inspired by Paul Harding, who has researched Henderson's life, and allowed me to see Henderson's unpublished memoir, "The Brink". I've written the intro to this new edition, and the information Paul shared with me was not only fascinating but really helpful.

Henderson had a life that was often sad, and he died in his mid-forties, just when his career might finally have been about to take off. But he really could write, and I hope and expect that this won't be the last of his books to gain a fresh life in the twenty-first century.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Forgotten Book - The Woman in the Sea

Image result for shelley smith woman in the sea

An older woman called Mrs Robinson seduces a naive young man. Sounds familiar? Well, my subject today is not The Graduate, but a much less familiar story, Shelley Smith's novel of 1948, The Woman in the Sea. It was her sixth book, and it's the work of an accomplished and interesting novelist, much admired by Julian Symons.

There's an Author's Note at the beginning, in which Smith states that "Looking about me for a suitable plot by which to illustrate certain aspects of morality which were much exercising my mind..." she recalled a real life case which seemed "to provide a framework both solid and pliable enough for my purpose". Here she is referring, I have little doubt, to the Rattenbury and Stoner case of 1935 (although that case bears uncanny similarities to the earlier, and even more famous, Thompson and Bywaters case).  She denies that her characters are intended to represent their real life counterparts,and on the whole I think this denial is not disingenuous, but fair enough. Francis Rattenbury, for instance, led a very different life from Zoe Robinson's husband Bertram.

The book has a prologue involving the discovery of the body, and essentially the rest of the story is a flashback, recounting the events in a doom-laden house which led up to that particular death. I suspect that Smith realised that her method of structuring the story reduced the tension, but that she though it a price worth paying. A debatable decision, as far as I'm concerned, but despite being quite sure how it was all going to end, I kept reading.

This is because Smith was a writer of genuine ability and intelligence. She could plot very well when she wanted to, but her main concern here was with those issues of morality. To a modern reader, perhaps these are not quite as compelling as they were in 1948, but the account of Zoe's affair with a really rather stupid lad is handled with some poignancy. I'm glad I read it. Smith's constant determination to try to do something different strikes me as admirable.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Dilemma - 1962 film review

Dilemma is a good title for the 1962 British black and white B movie which has, over the years, provoked widely differing responses. To some, it is "critically acclaimed", an unusual and possibly thought-provoking suspense story. To others, it's a complete disaster. At the risk of sitting on the fence, I can see both points of view. I found it watchable, despite an irritatingly intrusive soundtrack, but ultimately frustrating.

The set-up is definitely intriguing. In respectable suburbia, a youngish woman (Ingrid Hafner) screams and flees from her semi-detached house. Her nosey next door neighbour wonders what is going on. She isn't enlightened when Harry (Peter Halliday) turns up. He's a teacher, who has just broken up for the holidays. Tomorrow, he and his wife Jean are off on hols to celebrate their second wedding anniversary. He's surprised that Jean (Hafner) is nowhere to be seen.

Surprise turns to horror when he goes upstairs, and discovers a strange man's body in the bathroom. Just before he dies, the man utters an enigmatic "dying message". The deceased has been stabbed with a pair of scissors, and Jean's apron is stained with blood. What on earth is going on? Harry concludes that, for reasons he can't guess, Jean has murdered the man. So he sets about hiding the body under the floorboards of the living room.

The suspense builds as all manner of visitors, including the police, turn up to torment him. Will he get away with concealing evidence of murder? And what is his wife up to? The trouble is that his behaviour seems wildly implausible. How could it possibly be a good idea for someone with any intelligence to behave as he does? That's one of the three problems with the film. Another is that Hafner's acting is wooden in the extreme. She doesn't seem to believe in her character, though perhaps that's not surprising. The final problem is the finale, which is unsatisfactory - because inadequately foreshadowed and very difficult to believe - and oddly truncated. Apparently the film wasn't released in the cinema, though it was shown on television. It's an odd one, but it kept me watching even if I did feel slightly cheated at the end.

Monday, 12 February 2018

CWA North - 30 years on!

I've returned from an extremely enjoyable week-end in Yorkshire, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the northern chapter of the Crime Writers' Association. The company was excellent, and that's been a constant over the years, even though the names and faces have changed. In fact the only people from that very first meeting who made it to the same venue, the Crown Hotel in Boroughbridge, were myself and my then fiancee, now Mrs Edwards. She reminded me how nervous I'd been ahead of that first meeting, which was also the first time I'd met any crime writers in person. But I needn't have worried, since I was made very welcome by the likes of Peter Walker, Peter Lewis, Reginald Hill and Bob Barnard, and this spirit continues within the CWA to the present.

It was actually the autumn of 1987 that we had that inaugural meeting, and in that time the chapter has only had three convenors. Peter Walker, who sadly died last year, was succeeded by Roger Forsdyke, who has now, I'm glad to say, resumed writing after a break due to ill health. And Roger's successor, Ricki Thomas, had done a great job in organising our return to the Crown.

Ten of us met up for a convivial dinner the previous evening, and it was a particular pleasure to welcome a brand new member, Antony Johnston, a highly successful graphic novelist who has recently turned to crime writing. At the other end of the scale, on Sunday I was delighted to see again an old friend, Stephen Hayes, who as Stephen Murray was a successful writer for Collins Crime Club and an early member of the northern chapter; his career has, however, followed a different path over the past twenty years or so. Again, I'm hoping that Stephen - a very talented novelist - will soon be writing more crime novels.

Among all the merriment, there was time to reflect on a number of absent friends, as several long-standing members are currently affected by ill-health. But there have been so many happy times over the past 30 years - not least week-end get-togethers in the Lake District organised by the great Reg Hill, and three anthologies featuring names such as Ann Cleeves, Stuart Pawson, and Val McDermid - that the over-riding mood was one of delight. The CWA's regional chapters are a source of great strength to the organisation, and I do encourage any crime writer who is reading these words to take part in their own local chapter's activities. I'm sure you won't regret it.

Thanks to Roger Bullock for the photo at the top of the post, and to Sarah J. Mason for the below photos, taken when northern chapter members visited Magna Large Print way back in 1995. Those pictured include Tim Cleeves, Alanna Knight, John Baker, Stuart Pawson, Alan Sewart, Meg Elizabeth Atkins, and Peter Walker. You might even recognise a much younger version of me.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Forgotten Book - The Paddington Mystery

John Rhode published The Paddington Mystery in 1925, shortly after beginning a career as a crime writer, and this novel is notable because it introduces Dr Lancelot Priestley, the veteran professor of mathematics who was to become one of the most renowned amateur "great detectives" of the Golden Age. I was especially thrilled to acquire my copy of this book a short while ago, because although it is not a first edition, it once belonged to the Detection Club and bears the bookplate of their library; Rhode not only donated it, but signed it.

The story begins with amiable but raffish young Harold Merefield (pronounced "Merryfield", we're told) going home one night only to find a corpse. The identity of the dead man is not traced by the police, but since the deceased appears to have met his end  through natural causes, Harold doesn't find himself locked up on a murder rap. Unfortunately, the incident doesn't do his reputation any good, and makes it less likely than ever that he'll ever be able to rekindle his romance with Priestley's attractive daughter April. His association with a dubious woman called Vere doesn't help, either.

Harold decides to take the bull by the horns and consult Priestley. Although the older man can be irascible as well as cerebral, he has a kindly side to his nature, and is already on good terms with the police because of his interest in detection. He takes a keen interest in what the Press call "the Paddington Mystery" and starts to make enquiries.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, the story is pretty thin. It would have made a high calibre short story, but the eventual explanation goes on almost interminably, and the main twist is foreseeable, although there is one element of it that is rather pleasing and unusual. Not a masterpiece, by any means, but a book of historic interest. And it's pleasing to report that the book will be reissued in the Detective Story Club next June. Tony Medawar has written an intro which I'm sure will be informative.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Night of the Prowler - 1962 film review

Night of the Prowler is a 1962 B movie which begins extremely well before tailing off as the flaws in the villain's cunning plan become all too evident. The screenplay was written by Paul Erickson, a Welsh actor and writer who became quite a successful scriptwriter, working on Doctor Who, as well as crime series such as No Hiding Place, The Saint, Paul Temple, and The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Not a bad CV.

The story opens with the murder of one of the partners in a business which is involved with racing cars. A message is received by the surviving partners - a chap called Langton (Patrick Holt), his wife, from whom he's separated (Colette Wilde) and his friend Paul Conrad (Bill Nagy). The message indicates that the crime has been committed by a chap whom the partners had sent to prison fr theft.

Rather surprisingly, the partners take things in their stride, and an offer of police protection is declined. The official investigation is led by DI Cameron, played by John Horsley, long before he became celebrated as the inept Doc Morrissey in The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perring  Langton has a new girlfriend (Mitzi Rogers, later to feature in Coronation Street among other shows), while Conrad and Mrs Langton are developing a relationship.

I enjoyed the early part of the film, but felt that it went downhill as it progressed. The culprit's scheme didn't seem as cunning to me as it did to the scriptwriter, and as the body count rose, the failure of the killer's targets to seek adequate police protection began to seem suicidal. Not a bad film, but it didn't maintain its initial promise.

Crosstrap - 1962 film

One thing about forgotten books.No matter how obscure they are, you can almost always track down a copy sooner or later (being able to afford to buy it is a different matter!) The deposit library system isn't totally infallible, but overall it works extremely well. The position is different with old films and old TV shows. Some of them are lost forever, because the tapes have been wiped or otherwise destroyed. One can only dream, for instance, that a complete run of the wonderful BBC TV series Detective will turn up sooner or later. And there are plenty of other examples of good shows that are still missing.

But sometimes fans get a lucky break. A film thought to have been lost suddenly turns up. Such was the case with Crosstrap, a B movie made in 1962, which, it seems, some fans had been searching for year after year because it marked the debut of director Robert Hartford-Davis (though I must admit his fame had completely passed me by). But a copy turned up a few years ago, and now it's available again and has recently been screened by Talking Pictures.

The film stars Laurence Payne, an interesting character because he was not only a capable actor, most renowned for starring as Sexton Blake in the Sixties, but also the author of a number of crime novels.  I was once told by a female contemporary of his that he was a man with great personal charisma. Here he plays a smooth baddie called Duke, who is involved in a jewel robbery. His gang are waiting in a deserted house for a plane to take them to Spain. Why they hadn't arranged to be picked up more quickly is not explained. Even worse, the house isn't deserted. A young couple, played by Gary Cockrell and Jill Adams, have rented it for a romantic first anniversary stay. What's more, a rival gang is staking out the house.

The gang's plot, in other words, is a bit of a mess. The same might perhaps be said of the storyline, based on a novel by the prolific thriller writer John Newton Chance. Bill Nagy and Zena Marshall are in the cast, and in fairness the story moves along at a lively pace. But the sex and violence scenes seem rather tawdry (yet also tame) by modern standards, and it's not a great advert, in my opinion, for Hartford-Davis. The best thing about it is Payne's performance, and the explosive final scene.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Books, Books, Books...

...and more books. So many good things to read, so little time to read them. And even less to write lengthy blog posts about them, alas, so today I'm going to round up a few among the many interesting titles that have, happily, come my way in recent months. They illustrate the variety of crime writing in a good way, and let me also mention a couple of forthcoming non-crime titles.

Let me start with Len Tyler's latest, Herring in the Smoke, another case for Ethelred Tressider, one of my favourite amateur sleuths. I've been a fan of this series since it began, even before I got to know Len personally. And I was greatly amused to come across a reference to myself in the narrative! This is a book that gets off to a brilliant start, when Roger Norton Vane turns up at his own memorial service, twenty years after he went missing and was presumed dead. I was intrigued to see what Len would make of this premise, and while I figured out one plot twist, the ending took me aback. I won't say any more; you'll have to read the book!

Frances Brody has quietly established herself as one of our leading purveyors of historical mystery fiction. When I visited New York recently, I seized - of course - the chance to pop into as many bookshops as possible, and I was pleased to see Frances' books prominently displayed in Barnes and Noble. Pleased, but not surprised, because her history-mystery series about Kate Shackleton has become as popular in the US as it is here. The latest is Death in the Stars, which I'm reading currently and very much enjoying.

Perhaps less well-known than Len and Frances, but certainly an author to watch is Sarah Williams, Not content with writing fiction and non-fiction, she also runs a small press. As S.W. Williams she published her debut novel Small Deaths recently. It's another historical mystery: a serial killer is on the loose behind the lines on the Western  Front. As Sarah Williams, she's also responsible for How to Write Crime Fiction, published under the Robinson imprint. I'm a sucker for how-to-write-crime books, I must admit. It's not so much that I want to do all the exercises etc that their authors may suggest, but I find it truly fascinating to see the different approaches that are recommended.

Now someone I've never met, but with whom I've corresponded recently, is Paul Roland. His main field is true crime writing, an area I've ventured into myself, for instance with Urge to Kill and Truly Criminal, a CWA anthology of true crime stories. Paul's work encompasses Jack the Ripper, crime scene investigation, and criminal profiling in In the Minds of Murderers. An author worth bearing in mind if this is your field of interest.

Someone else I've never met is the tireless researcher and anthologist Mike Ashley. Yet I owe Mike quite a debt, because many years ago, he took my first attempt at a Sherlock Holmes story, "The Case of the Suicidal Lawyer" (yep, a joke about the legal life is lurking in there somewhere...) This has led to a hugely enjoyable occasional sideline, culminating in my recent lecture to the Baker Street Irregulars. Anyway, back to Mike. He too has done a good deal of work with the British Library, and now he's edited two meaty anthologies of classic science fiction, Moonrise and Lost Mars, which will be the shelves soon. I enjoy quite a few sci-fi writers, and I've started dipping into these collections already. With any luck, this may be the start of an imprint to rival the Crime Classics.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Forgotten Book - Motive for Murder

Motive for Murder is a title close to my heart. It was an alternative title for my true crime book Urge to Kill,and the almost-identical Motives for Murder was the title of the Detection Club anthology which I edited, and which yielded four stories on the CWA Dagger longlist, three on the shortlist (including my "Murder and its Motives"!) and the ultimate winner. But today I'm talking about something completely different - the novel published in 1963 by Charles Barling.

Actually, Charles Barling was the name of the author's husband. Her principal writing name was Pamela Barrington and she lived from 1904-1986. Her first novel, White Pierrot, was published in the early Thirties, but it was a romance rather than crime, and her career only really developed after the Second World War. She was never a big name, although Account Rendered (1953) was filmed, with a very young Honor Blackman in a leading role.

Motive for Murder concerns the doomed marriage of Paul Hooper, a young estate agent, to Edith Maitland, an attractive and enigmatic older woman, who moves to Rye and decides to buy the house Paul grew up in, and with which he is obsessed. She seduces him, and they marry - though his eye is on the house rather than Edith. Before long, Edith starts an affair with another man, and behaves so unpleasantly to all and sundry that it's foreseeable she will wind up dead.

And so she does. The question is - who killed her, and why? The publishers described this as "an offbeat crime story with an ingenious twist", and I found it very readable indeed. In fact, I found the build-up very entertaining. But the later part of the story struck me as disappointing. A certain carelessness with the writing perhaps explains my disappointment, as does the fact that I didn't find the twist ingenious. This is nearly a very good mystery, and I'm glad I read it, but the excellence that I'd anticipated wasn't sustained. A shame, because there's something distinctive about this writer's storytelling.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Agatha and other awards

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books features on the newly announced shortlist for the Agatha award for best non-fiction book, and naturally I'm pleased, as well as grateful to those who have put the book forward for consideration. I was conscious that The Golden Age of Murder was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime book, and that there was a risk if I ventured into non-fiction about the genre again, the result would be anti-climactic. But it would be a mistake to be deterred by that sort of thinking, since the aim of writing is to do what you enjoy, and what you hope others may enjoy. And I found the experience of working on the book hugely enjoyable, not least because my British and American publishers are excellent, and I had wonderful support from a number of people, not least Nigel Moss and Barry Pike, whose comments on the draft were enormously helpful.

I've had wide-ranging experience of dealing with awards, both in my legal career and as a writer. I've been involved in decisions on awards, notably during the period of about twenty years when I was on the CWA Diamond Dagger sub-committee. My own efforts have appeared on shortlists, and occasionally been successful. And, it goes without saying, the vast majority of my works have not come close to featuring in any awards lists.

All this had led me to various opinions about awards. I've sometimes talked to people who develop conspiracy theories about award judging processes, but I tend not to be too sympathetic to these. The reality is that judging awards, or voting for an award, entails a great deal of subjectivity. I can think of many award-winning books that have benefited from good timing as well as intrinsic merit, and that's life. What is the "best"? The novel that I regard as my best got nowhere, in terms of sales or awards, yet three other novels did well. Perhaps that simply means that an author isn't the best judge of his or her own work.

In recent years, I've had a lot of good fortune with awards, and maybe that is why I take a fairly relaxed view of these things. But really, lovely as it is to have one's work recognised, it's surely best to strive to be philosophical about awards. What I'd say to any writer at the start of their career is to enjoy the good times, because all writers have plenty of less good times. To be shortlisted for an award is an honour, something to savour. And then what matters is to keep writing, and try to write something even better, whether or not it ever comes close to winning an award.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Chloe -film review

Chloe is a psychological thriller movie, originally released in 2009. It's a remake by Atom Egoyan of a French film called Nathalie, from 2003, which I haven't seen. Chloe benefits from a classy cast, led by Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson. I always enjoy watching Neeson, even though I'm not quite sure whether that's because of his acting skills or simply his charisma. Here, as so often, he plays David, a rumpled but likeable guy, an academic and a specialist in opera. The trouble is, his wife Catherine starts to suspect that he's rather too likeable as far as his students are concerned.

Catherine, a rich doctor, throws an extravagant surprise birthday party for David at great expense. Much to her embarrassment, he doesn't show up, because he's missed his flight. But did he miss it to be with someone else? She thinks so, and before long the affluent and seemingly untroubled lifestyle of the couple (and the life of their musical but troubled son Michael) is in serious jeopardy.

Catherine comes across a highly attractive escort girl, Chloe, and decides to hire Chloe to test David, by seeing if he is susceptible to being seduced. It's not a wise plan. Before long Chloe is reporting back graphic details of what she and David get up to. And then Chloe encounters Michael when she turns up at Catherine's place of work...

After an enigmatic and unpredictable opening, Chloe develops into a relatively straightforward thriller. The film critic Roger Ebert is among those who have admired the ambiguity of Chloe's motivation (and it's no accident that the film is named for her) but although I enjoyed the film as a competent thriller, I don't think that it has any great claims to sophistication in terms of writing. But Amanda Seyfried's portrayal of the title character is certainly compelling..

Friday, 26 January 2018

Forgotten Book - The Deadly Dove

Image result for rufus king deadly dove

When I blogged about my recent trip to New York City, I mentioned a visit to the Strand Bookstore, a cavernous place on four floors with, so they tell me (and I didn't check) eighteen miles of books. That's a lot of books. There's a rare book room on the top floor, and I looked at several very interesting titles. Among them were a couple of signed books that caught my eye. And one of these had a fascinating inscription. It's my Forgotten Book for today.

The author was Rufus King, and the title The Deadly Dove. I have to say that, when the jacket proclaimed that it offered "a sinister mixture of mirth and murder", I had plenty of qualms. Writing a truly successful comic crime novel is very, very difficult. And I didn't even realise that Rufus King did comedy. I'd always thought of him as someone who began as a disciple of S.S. Van Dine before branching out with his Valcour series, an omnibus of which has lurked on my shelves for many years. But I was loving my trip to New York, so in merry mood, I bought the book.

I read it very quickly because it's quite short. And that's a good thing, because if there's one type of book that's harder to write than a comic crime novel, it's a long comic crime novel. The Deadly Dove was published in 1944, and perhaps it afforded some relief from thoughts of warfare. As a matter of fact, it begins well.

The premise is that a grasping young chap called Alan has married an older woman, Christine, for money. Alan owes a gangster $25,000, and the pair of them come to an arrangement. The gangster will arrange for a veteran assassin called Dove to kill Christine. You can guess what's coming, can't you? Yes, that's right. Circumstances change, and Alan becomes desperate to prevent Dove from carrying out his assigned task. But where is Dove? Oh no, he can't be found! The later plot developments became, for me, progressively less gripping, and although King was quite a capable crime writer, this novel is really a minor work. But at least it didn't outstay its welcome as far as I was concerned.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Nocturnal Animals - 2016 film review

Nocturnal Animals is a recent thriller movie written and directed by Tom Ford which has won plaudits in many quarters. It stars Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, a rich art gallery owner based in L.A., and Jake Gyllenhal as her ex-husband Edward Sheffield. So - a top-notch cast.

And the premise is interesting, too. Amy has married a second time, and her husband is handsome but untrustworthy. She seems rather discontented with her glamorous lifestyle, and is intrigued when a parcel arrives for her unexpectedly. No, it doesn't contain poisoned chocolates, but rather their modern day equivalent (as in that interesting novel Disclaimer, for instance) - the manuscript of an extremely disturbing novel. It seems to have been written by her ex, Edward.

She starts to read the book, and we are plunged into a grim story about a man (also played by Gyllenhal) who is driving with his wife and teenage daughter in a remote part of Texas one evening, when their trip is rudely interrupted by an encounter with a menacing trio of trouble-makers who eventually run them off the road. It's quite clear that Bad Things are going to happen.

The film shifts back and forth between the story and Susan's life. This kind of structure is one I find very interesting. And yet. Despite the slickness of the film, I had reservations about it. They began with the opening scene, set at Susan's gallery, where obese naked women are dancing. This felt  a bit gratuitous to me, and some other reviewers seem to feel the same way. I also felt that the ending, which many others like, had a "so-what?" quality about it. Overall, despite the film's strengths, I was slightly disappointed. Nocturnal Animals seemed to me like a film that is too clever for its own good. 

Monday, 22 January 2018

Bats in the Belfry

Image result for "e c r lorac" "bats in the belfry"

I'm excited about this year's programme for the Crime Classics series published by the British Library. The mix of titles that will appear this year is extremely varied. There should be something, I hope, for everyone who enjoys classic crime. My belief is that variety in a series such as this is essential, just as it is in an anthology. Yes, it means that not everyone will enjoy every story equally. But overall, that scarcely matters, because it also means that readers have the chance to sample writers and styles of writing that are unfamiliar to them, which has to be a good thing. And one of several exciting developments is that 2018 will see the reappearance in mass market paperback of two novels by E.C.R. Lorac.

I was first told about Lorac by my parents, when I was young. Both of them liked the books in particular because some of them were set in a part of the country, north west England, which they knew very well. My Dad was a real fan, although I'm not sure he ever cottoned on to the fact that the Lorac pen-name concealed the identity of a woman, Edith Caroline Rivett. But the books were out of print, something my Mum and Dad mourned. So when I started working, and haunting second hand bookshops, I snapped up every Lorac title that I could find, and presented it to my parents. (I did the same with quite a few other authors they liked; I'll say more about those books, some other time.) After their deaths, the books came back to me, and I've slowly been working my way through them, as well as adding some more titles to the collection.

One of the additions I made a couple of years ago was Bats in the Belfry, which is set in central London. I happened to be on holiday in, of all places, the Atacama Desert, when I checked a favourite dealer's site (as you do) and discovered that an inscribed copy was for sale. I nabbed it while still in Chile, on the assumption that I'd never get another chance, even though the book lacked a jacket. And when I read the book, I was delighted, not just by the inscription (to Lorac's mother) but by the story, which struck me as entertaining and atmospheric. Yes, I did guess whodunit, but I felt that the plot overall was pleasing enough for this not to be a problem.

Even before I bought that book, I'd been keen for the British Library to bring Lorac's books back into the public eye. But it proved very difficult to trace the rights holders. Finally, thanks to the sterling efforts of Rob Davies's department at the Library, the deed was done, and now Lorac is back in print. Bats in the Belfry was published last week, and another title, Fire in the Thatch, will come out before too long. I'm really pleased about this, and I hope that if you sample Lorac for yourself, you'll find her work enjoyable too.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Forgotten Book- Close Quarters

Image result for "michael gilbert" "close quarters"

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Harriett Gilbert, an acclaimed novelist and radio presenter - and also the daughter of one of my long-time favourite crime writers, Michael Gilbert. I invited her to be guest speaker at the Detection Club's most recent dinner, and like all all my colleagues I really enjoyed listening to Harriett talking, with great affection, about her father's work. And this splendid occasion, among other things, has prompted me to revisit several of his books.

Close Quarters, first published in 1947, was his first novel. I borrowed it from our local library at a very tender age; more recently, to my delight, I managed to lay my hands on a signed first edition, and because I think lovely books should be read, rather than just gazed at admiringly, I have just re-read it, with much pleasure. The story is set in 1937, and apparently Gilbert wrote it before the Second World War, but his time in service (including a spell as a prisoner of war in Italy) meant that his attempts to establish himself as an author were put on hold until hostilities ceased. Once he'd got into print, however, there was  no stopping him, and books and short stories began to flow from his pen.

Gilbert's work was exceptionally varied, but this first effort was very definitely in the tradition of the Golden Age whodunit. There is a "closed circle" setting which just happens to be a cathedral close. There's a cast of characters, maps of the close, and even a crossword puzzle which plays a part in the storyline. And Chief Inspector Hazlerigg, who featured in several of Gilbert's later mysteries, makes his debut.

As you'd expect from a first novel, this one has some flaws. In particular, I feel that there are too many people - the first chapter introduces them at a rather dizzying rate, and although Gilbert's urbane storytelling style is already in evidence, I shared Hazlerigg's irritation at the fact that a crucial piece of information was kept from him for three days. Nonetheless, an enjoyable book, and the start of an admirable career. Many years later, incidentally, Gilbert returned to Melchester Cathedral for The Black Seraphim, though the later book wasn't a sequel to his debut.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

New York, New York...

I'm just back from a short stay in New York, my third visit to the Big Apple. Each trip has been unforgettable. The first time coincided with the first time I had a novel published in the US - Eve of Destruction. I recall vividly checking into my hotel just off Broadway, then walking towards Central Park only to be lured into a bookstore. Imagine my glee when I was confronted by a huge display of my latest hardback! That hasn't happened too many times in life, I can tell you. The second trip was for the Edgars, two years ago, when The Golden Age of Murder had a lucky night. Very, very  memorable.

And this time, I'd been invited to stay in the Yale Club for four nights by the Baker Street Irregulars. They'd asked me to give their annual "distinguished speaker" (their term, not mine) lecture, and to take part in the BSI annual weekend, timed to coincide with Sherlock Holmes' official birthday, as well as some remarkable weather, ranging from snow to 60 degrees in the blink of an eye. The Irregulars were formed back in 1934, and they are a very prestigious group. Being invested as an Irregular is a big deal for Sherlockians. As for the lecture, I was following in the footsteps of some genuinely distinguished people, including Sara Paretsky, Christopher Frayling, Laurie R. King, and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda . No pressure, then...

Anyway, I got to the US in good time and had the chance of a "bracing" i.e. very cold walk to the fascinating Strand Bookstore, a huge and impressive place, where I managed to bag a couple of excellent signed books. On the flight I'd watched Goodbye Christopher Robin, and this prompted me to visit the New York Public Library, which is impressive, and boasts among many other treasures the original Winnie-the-Pooh, plus chums such as Piglet and Eeyore, in a glass case, in front of the famous map of the 100 acre wood.

The Yale Club proved very atmospheric, and among other things it boasts a fantastic library. I had the chance to attend a range of events, including a Baker Street Journal cocktail party, the main BSI dinner, a fabulous affair, a reception and lunch, a book fair and a private party given by Otto Penzler at the Mysterious Bookshop. Best of all, I had the chance to meet delightful people, including Mike Whelan, head of the BSI, and Les Klinger who invited me over, as well as many others. My thanks go to Dana Cameron for the photo at the top of this post, taken in the Club when I was fielding questions after my lecture. And then, on my last day, the sun shone (though it was again "bracing") and Michael Dirda and I had brunch together before doing sightseeing stuff at the Rockefeller Center, including a trip to Top of the Rock, with amazing views all around an amazing city. Quiet and understated New York is not, but I had a whale of a time.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Web of Evidence - 1959 film review

Web of Evidence is the American title of a 1959 British film which in this country was called Beyond This Place. The screenplay was based on a novel by A.J. Cronin, also called Beyond This Place. Cronin isn't someone I associate with crime writing, and I guess the novel may be a bit more of a mainstream book than a thriller. But he was a good novelist - and the creator of Dr Finlay's Casebook - and I imagine it's worth reading.

The film is one of those which grafts American actors on to a British story solely for commercial reasons. Fortunately, in this case the actors are Van Johnson and Vera Miles, both of whom were very capable performers. Oddly enough, the setting is Liverpool, and I was fascinated to see shots of the city as it was in the late Fifties - a much grimmer place than it is today, for sure.

Johnson plays Paul Mathry, who docks at Liverpool for a few days in the hope of tracing his father, whom he lost touch with at the start of the war, when his mother took him away to the United States. He is shocked to find that his father (played by Bernard Lee, just before he became "M" in the James Bond films) was convicted of murder, and only escaped the gallows with the help of a campaigner (Emlyn Williams).

Johnson decides Dad was innocent, and sets out to prove it. But he faces obstruction from the authorities, who don't want the old case to be re-opened. Vera Miles, a local librarian, helps Johnson in his quest, and naturally they fall for each other. But she too has a secret in her past. I wasn't qutie convinced by some of the legal aspects of the plot, but that didn't matter too much. The quality of the acting (the likes of Leo McKern, Geoffrey Keen and Rosalie Crutchley also appear) coupled with a solid story make this a very watchable film.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Forgotten Book - Burn This

Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was one of the most talented of American crime writers. I've enjoyed a number of her clever and often off-beat mysteries, both those featuring her regular amateur sleuth Dr Basil Willing, and those in which he doesn't appear. Burn This (1980) marked Willing's final appearance, as well as being his first for twelve years. It also proved to be McCloy's last novel

The story is set in Boston and although the critical consensus is that it's not one of her masterpieces (a view which I share) it is still full of pleasing elements, especially given that McCloy seizes the chance to crack a few jokes about the writing business, and offer a few insights into it. A widow, Harriet Sutton, consults her lawyer about making a fresh start in life. Encouraged by him, she buys a house for herself in a historic neighbourhood, and funds the cost by taking tenants. Because she's a writer, she decides that her tenants should be writers too.

However, the tranquillity of her new existence is disturbed when she comes across an anonymous note marked "Burn this". It appears to be a message from one person living in the house to another saying that a fellow tenant is "Nemesis", a critic of legendary virulence, and that "Nemesis" should be given his - or her - final come-uppance. But who wrote the note, who was to receive it, and who is "Nemesis".

Harriet mistakenly reveals the existence of the note to her tenants, and chaos ensues, but when murder duly occurs, the victim is unexpected - Harriet's lawyer. Is the death connected with the note? In the second half of the book, the victim's heir introduces Harriet to Basil Willing, who lends the  police a hand. I wasn't altogether blown away by the solution to the mystery, which seemed to me to be less interesting that such a tantalising set-up deserved. So it's not vintage McCloy. But it is still decent entertainment, a quick and easy read, though not the best introduction to a fine writer.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Frightened City - 1961 film review

Even before he became James Bond, Sean Connery was an actor whose performances packed a punch, and in The Frightened City, released in 1961, he gives a notable, and indeed nuanced, performance as a gangster called Paddy Damion. Damion can be brutal, and treats his girlfriend Sadie badly, but he is a good friend, even if he chooses his friends from people he's shared a prison cell with, notably an aged gangster called Alfie, and a former burglar (played by Kenneth Griffiths) who is now disabled..

Damion only comes into the story after an intriguing scenario has been established. Herbert Lom plays Waldo, a sinister accountant, who talks protection racketeer Foulcher (Alfred Marks) into joining forces with other gang leaders to create a reign of terror in London The police, with John Gregson to the fore, are struggling to cope with the menace.

But Waldo and Foulcher become greedy, while Damion's wandering eye leads him into trouble when he falls for Waldo's lady friend Anya, played by Yvonne Romain. Romain is convincing as a sultry foreign seductress, so it came as something of a surprise to me to earn that her real name is Yvonne Warren, and she was born in London. She's been married to prolific songwriter Leslie Bricusse from almost sixty years, but the background music in the film is provided by Norrie Paramor and The Shadows.

This is a realistic, and occasionally subtle film which is at least a couple of notches above the ordinary in terms of both screenplay (by Leigh Vance) and performances. The focus is more on the villains than the cops (who are not above breaking the law themselves to try to do justice as they see it), and that works pretty well. And the climactic scene in Waldo's exotically furnished home is nicely done.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Maelstrom - DVD review

Image result for maelstrom bbc 1985

Maelstrom was a six-part BBC series screened in 1985. I didn't see it then, but I'd read good things about it, and I've developed an interest in the writer, Michael J. Bird, who wrote a number of very popular TV series in that era.. So I was delighted to receive the DVD two-disc set as a Christmas present, and quick to watch it. And I found it very enjoyable.

In essence, it's a Scandi-crime show written by an Englishman. The premise is interesting. Catherine loses her job only to fall on her feet. A summons to a solicitor's office results in her discovering that she has inherited valuable property in Norway. The benefactor was a wealthy Norwegian, but she knows nothing about him, or why she has been mentioned in his will. She sets off to Alesund to learn more about her inheritance and meets an enigmatic bunch of characters.

Most enigmatic of all are the two daughters of her mysterious and recently deceased benefactor, who welcome her warmly (and are wealthy in their own right, so have no need to be jealous of her inheritance). Yet there's something very odd about the situation. And does the local doctor know more than he's letting on? She is befriended by a handsome local journalist, who believes there was somethiing suspicious about her benefactor's death. And what is the secret of the island house she has inherited, where one of the rooms is inexplicably locked, and to which a hundred or so dolls lend a certain spookiness?

By the standards of modern TV crime dramas, Maelstrom doesn't move at a fast pace, but the scenery is gorgeous, and the story builds suspense very well. I was interested to study Bird's technique. His plot is sound, and although I figured out the  main twist early on, he still kept one surprise up his sleeve. The cast does a decent job, especially Tusse Silberg as Catherine, and Northwich-born Ann Todd, who plays Astrid. And although the creepiness of dolls has been explored in other films and TV shows, Bird uses them very well here in creating a macabre atmosphere. I can recommend this one.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Forgotten Book - The Poison Trail

Anthony Armstrong is remembered today, if at all, for his play Ten Minute Alibi, the novelisation of which I reviewed earlier this year. Armstrong's real name was George Anthony Armstrong Willis, and he was born in 1897 in British Columbia, the son of a British man who was in the Royal Navy. The family returned to England in 1900, and Armstrong became a successful writer. Among other things, he contributed to the screenplay of Hitchcock's Young and Innocent, a film which renders the source material, Josephine Tey's debut novel, pretty much unrecognisable.

Armstrong's career as a novelist was not outstanding, but among other books he wrote a series of five featuring Jimmy Rezaire. Rezaire is one of those characters, like Raffles, who begins life as a crook and ends up on the right side of the law. I recently read The Poison Trail, his final case, in which he is operating as a private investigator on good terms with the police.

The Poison Trail isn't a whodunit, but a howdunit. It's fairly clear from the outset that Gideon Davenport killed his brother Abel to inherit a fortune. But what baffles everyone is how he managed it. Richard Marty, who had hoped to inherit instead of Gideon, is frustrated by the inability of the police to nail the killer, and so he consults Rezaire.

Rezaire is assisted by his wife Viv and his chum Hyslop, but at first they are confounded by the case. Has Gideon outsmarted them? Armstrong was a readable writer, and although the plot is not over-elaborate, it's quite well-handled. Personally, I prefer more twists than were on offer in The Poison Trail, and the story is told in a slightly boyish way, but it's a competent piece of work, even if a minor one..

Forgotten Book - Death at Breakfast

Image result for john rhode death at breakfast

John Rhode was probably at the height of his fame when he published Death at Breakfast in 1936. It's long been a hard-to-find novel, but not any more, thanks to a paperback reissue by Harper Collins which uses the splendid (if not quite true to the storyline) original cover artwork. It's another example of a reissue that, a few years ago, would have seemed an impossible dream.

But is it any good? Well, yes, I think it is. This isn't an entry in the publishers' Detective Story Club, so there is no introduction, but there is a prologue - not a device that Rhode commonly used, I believe, though I have to say that there are over 100 of his detective novels that I haven't read. We're introduced tot he miserly and unpleasant Victor, who is anticipating some kind of mysterious windfall. Suffice to say, the reader is not heartbroken when Victor quickly meets his death as a result of nicotine poisoning.

At first, suspicion falls on his half-sister and her brother. But soon it becomes clear that the mystery is more complex than seemed to be the case. Superintendent Hanslet and young Jimmy Waghorn make a nicely contrasted pair of detectives, but for all their talents, they find it necessary to consult Dr Lancelot Priestley when the puzzle become hard to solve.

Hanslet is not impressed by some of Priestley's reasoning, and naively concludes that the great man, who is getting on in years, may be losing his grip. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. I figured out the central trick in the story quite some time before the two cops, but that didn't much lessen my pleasure in an entertaining mystery. Rhode was a capable craftsman, and he built his plots with care. This is a pretty good one.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Where Does the Time Go?

Welcome to a new year of "Do You Write Under Your Own Name?" I've not broken any new year resolutions yet, thanks to the cunning plan of not making any. But of course the start of a new year offers an opportunity to reflect, and to plan ahead. I'm already looking forward to the appearance of my next anthology, Blood on the Tracks, and next week I head off for New York, where I'll be giving the "distinguished speaker lecture" to the Baker Street Irregulars, Life is short, so the challenge is always: how to make the best of it? And so questions of time management start to rear their head...

Perhaps 25 years ago, the Law Society published some guidelines on time management for lawyers, and I was featured. My hazy recollection is that this came about because I was at the time a member of the Society's employment law committee, and its secretary gained the impression that if one combined writing novels with writing legal books and articles, and being a partner in a law firm, one must have some thoughts about effective time management. I'm still not sure that I can claim true expertise in this field, because I usually feel less efficient than I'd like to be. But lately a few people have asked me about my approach, most recently, on New Year's Day, fellow writer Noreen Wainwright.

So in response to Noreen's question in particular, here are a few thoughts about how I go about my writing life. Be warned, though. You may feel as disappointed as Dr Watson sometimes did, when Sherlock Holmes explained his deductions. There's no great magic in any of this.

It seems to me that effective time management requires a number of things that can't be guaranteed. Good health makes things so much easier (though I'm repeatedly impressed by the achievements of disabled people I know, I'm doubtful I could emulate them), and so does a supportive family. These are blessings not to be taken for granted.

But what can one do, personally, to try to achieve more in a limited amount of time? It's a question I'm pondering for myself right now, as I anticipate becoming involved with a major literary project later in the year that will be very time-consuming. More about this another day, but the point is that I'm acutely conscious that I'll have to juggle various literary commitments, as Chair of the CWA, President of the Detection Club, archivist of both, CWA anthologist, consultant to the British Library's Crime Classics, and so on.

In addition, at the moment I still work part-time as a solicitor (mainly from home, nowadays, thank goodness: the reduction in lost time commuting has been a real advantage), although that aspect of my life is drawing to a natural and contented conclusion. As well as the driving, one time-drain I don't miss is having to manage solicitors. Even when you have a great team, as I certainly did, it's very wearing, and eats into one's time at an alarming rate, if one spends plenty of time with everyone, making sure that all is well with them; and if one doesn't devote time to that, perhaps one shouldn't be a manager.

Anyway, as well as my various commitments, I also want to do plenty of writing, and also take part in festivals and other events. I write because it's what I've dreamed of doing since I was a small child, and although events do take up a lot of time, they are a good way of meeting readers and prospective readers, people who are almost invariably pleasant to chat with..But I'm also very firmly of the view that, so far as possible, one should minimise the time one spends doing unpleasant and thankless tasks, So if I disliked crime conventions, panels, and talks, I'd rarely bother with them. Because I enjoy them, and meeting fellow writers and readers, I don't find them hard work.

One challenge is to spread the load, so that one isn't constantly travelling. This is especially true in my case, as I find it hard to write when I'm travelling (and this is an area where I'd definitely like to improve). So I use travel time as a way of refreshing my ideas about possible stories - I mentioned last Saturday various ideas for short stories that came to me through travelling in 2017. Even so, I've had - reluctantly - to turn down quite a number of invitations in recent times.

The most striking and frustrating example came last autumn, when on one particular Saturday I was asked to attend three different festivals, in Lancaster, London, and Belfast respectively. In the end, I went to Lancaster, mainly because that invitation came first, but also because it was a less time-consuming trip. I was really sorry to miss the other two events, but the reality is that you can't do everything. As more opportunities have come my way, I've talked to more successful authors to pick up tips about how to choose what to do. The answer always comes down to having a clear sense of priorities. Prioritisation in life is crucial, it seems to me. It is a question of trying to figure out what matters most to you.

Keeping things simple also seems to me to be vital. Take this blog, for instance. I am keen to keep to my practice of publishing three blog posts a week, with a Forgotten Book on Friday, but I don't want to spend a huge chunk of time producing blog posts. So (as with this post, for instance) I aim for spontaneity - which is my excuse for the mistakes I make! I often think I should spend more time illustrating my blog posts, e.g. with film posters and book jackets. But again, the key is not to be over-elaborate. And it's desirable not to put oneself under too much pressure. So I always have a stock of blog posts that aren't time-sensitive available, in case I'm away on holiday or unwell. As with attending festivals, writing a blog should never feel like a chore. If one doesn't enjoy it, better not to do it. But my method has helped me to enjoy writing this blog for more than ten years, and I can honestly say that I enjoy it as much today as I have ever done. If that were to change, it would be time for a re-think, because I am sure it would become evident to you, my readers, and I don't want standards to slip.

Social media? Well, whether one is traditionally published or self-published, there's no denying that it's important to strive to promote one's own books. Relying on someone else to do it for won't get you very far unless you're a superstar. But that doesn't mean you have to spend endless time doing things on social media that you're uncomfortable with. I confess that I'm not very good at Twitter, partly because I fear that brevity can lead to saying something unkind or inappropriate quite unintentionally. We live in a world where it's all too easy to give offence without meaning to. So I prefer the broader canvas of a blog.

As for Facebook, I spend a bit of time on it, but not a huge amount. As I say, this blog post was sparked by a Facebook conversation, and some of these exchanges can be illuminating. Facebook is a wonderful way of making connections with people one seldom or never meets in person. But I'm slightly amazed at the way some very sensible people devote so much effort to sharing their latest rant on politics or whatever with people who then spend ages agreeing with them; the echo chamber aspect of social media is an oddity of our times. Other writers issue high calibre newsletters (and writing a regular newsletter is an idea I'm toying with myself - when I get that elusive moment!). It's again a question of figuring out what works for you, and prioritising that as best you can.

Another aspect of keeping thing simple concerns focusing on the task in hand .It is easy to become overwhelmed by the prospect of a series of demanding commitments, and I try to minimise that risk. To do this, one also has to be realistic about the commitments one takes on. Here's an example. Back in the 1990s, a kind editor offered me a two-book contract for more Harry Devlin novels. But I wanted to write a different and complex novel (which became Take My Breath Away) and I was working long hours in the office. I felt that to take on further deadlines would add to the stresses I was under. So reluctantly I turned the offer down. When I was ready to return to Harry Devlin, my editor had gone, and so had the contract offer. You could argue that I made a mistake, since Take My Breath Away was not, whatever its merits, a big seller. The Devlin books sold much better, and continue to do very well as ebooks. But if it was a mistake, then I haven't spent ages regretting it. We all make mistakes, and once we've apologised and learned from them, it's time to move on. Actually, I think the decision made sense. It also led me into writing the Lake District Mysteries, which have done even better than the Devlins.

A further way of avoiding wasting one's time is this. A sensible mindset, in my opinion, involves not worrying unduly about the possibility that others may not like what one writes. As I've said before, one can and should learn from constructive criticism, but there's no point in allowing oneself to be dragged down by negativity. You can't please all the people all the time, so you shouldn't fritter away your life trying to do so. All you can do is your level best, and if that's not good enough (for instance, if you write a book that nobody wants to publish) you just need to learn from the experience and do something else (actually, of course, you can self-publish easily nowadays if you wish, so there's no need to get too despondent anyway).

Again, it's a matter of priorities, and different people have different views. About three years ago I had a pleasant chat with an author who cheerfully rebuked me for producing half as many books as she had published in the same number of years. And she had a point. Most people regard me as prolific, but I started my first novel 30 years ago, and I've published 18 in all, which is less than many authors. When I mumbled a lame excuse about spending time on research and revision, she said brightly, "I never bother with those." As I say, it's a question of what you think really matters, and that has to involve a personal choice..

Writing is a tough game, and I would never pretend otherwise. It become impossibly difficult, I suspect, if you find that you don't really enjoy it most of the time, or if financial pressures become too great. One of the reasons I kept the day job going for all those years was that I didn't want money considerations to mess up my writing. Crime fiction is commercial, but within the limits of my talent, I've tried to write books I cared about, rather than to make money. It's just as well, perhaps. I'd have predicted that Dancing For the Hangman would have sold really well, and that The Golden Age of Murder wouldn't., but the reverse proved to be the case.

 Of course, I experience frustrations. All writers do, because what we write is never quite as good as we hoped it would be. One may be a perfectionist, and in some respects I am, but one simply has to accept that life isn't perfect, and neither is one's writing. So I revise endlessly, and listen with respect to suggestions from my agent, editors, and others, often taking their advice on board. But ultimately it's my novel, short story or non-fiction book, so the final responsibility rests with me. It's for me, the writer, to decide where to draw the line. Though I admit that I never stop wanting to change things - I was revising The Golden Age of Murder, for instance, until the day it went to press. And once I have drawn that line, I try to move on to the next project. Mind you, that didn't stop me making two further sets of revisions to The Golden Age of Murder when reprints came along! 

The business side of life can also prove time-consuming. In running the Detection Club, and the much larger and more complex CWA, I've adapted methods of management that I developed when running my own business (a big department in a law firm) and co-running another (sitting on the board of the firm as a whole, a much less pleasurable experience). The number one priority is to develop a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve and then to surround yourself with good people who genuinely want to help to achieve it,. Then, because they are good people, you should trust them to do what they are supposed to do, and not behave like a control freak. Because the simple truth is that there is a limit to what any one person can control, and there are times when one simply has to let go, because there is no sane alternative. The CWA is nothing like a law firm, but I think the broad principles of leadership don't change that much. The key is to apply them as sensibly as one can.

And before I stop pontificating (I bet Noreen's regretting she asked!), let me add one other observation about how not to spend one's time. Luck plays a big part in life, and in the writing life too. It's easy to feel that the Fates are lined up against you, and it's reasonable to devote a few nanoseconds to feeling sorry for yourself, but not much longer, otherwise it it will sour your outlook. Overall, I've been exceptionally lucky, but even so, time and again over the past twenty years, my work has been optioned or adapted for film, radio, or television, and nothing has ever come of it. Yet really, what sense is there in moaning about things one can't control? Countless others are either in the same boat, or much less fortunate..It's an equally pointless drain of energy to agonise over a mean-spirited review from someone with an axe to grind or whose opinion probably isn't worth much anyway.

Almost every author has a hard luck story to tell about their career, sometimes many such stories, but the successful ones, and I'm sure the happiest ones, are those who take the setbacks in their stride, and just get on with with the job. A platitude, maybe, but nonetheless true. Nobody begged us to write, we do it because we love it. And whilst money, success, awards and so on are absolutely terrific, and I'm partial to all of them, to quote a lyric (by a very fine lyricist whose genius was that he always kept things simple) it's that love that really counts.