Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Innocent - ITV drama review

I've just caught up with Innocent, last week's ITV crime show, a four-parter written by Chris Lang and Matthew Arlidge. I thought it was very watchable, and though it wasn't in any way ground-breaking, that's not a criticism, There are times when TV shows that try too hard to be original simply descend into absurdity. Innocent had its flaws, but overall it was good entertainment.

The basic premise is that David Collins (played very well by Lee Ingleby, an actor of considerable range) has just been released from prison, eight years after being charged with the murder of his wife Tara. His one supporter has been his older brother Phil, but he's lost his two children to his brittle sister-in-law (Hermione Norris, excellent as usual) and her husband. Now, for David, it's payback time. And soon his in-laws come under suspicion themselves.

The police re-investigate the crime, and soon the senior officer discovers that her partner, who conducted the original inquiry, was responsible for a miscarriage of justice. There were some aspects of the police side of the case which didn't seem totally credible to me, and similarly I was baffled by the suspension of the doctor who was one of the suspects - he seemed to be the top man in the practice, but was treated as a junior employee; my inner employment lawyer wasn't convinced. But these are the compromises with reality that writers often feel they have to make.

The location shots were absolutely marvellous - it turns out that Malahide, a lovely spot, stood in for the supposed setting in Sussex. The surprise twist was, to me, entirely foreseeable as early as episode two, but that didn't really matter too much, because the story was nicely paced, well acted, and didn't culminate in one of those tedious cliffhangers which are meant to pave the way for a second series. I don't expect Innocent to return, but it was good while it lasted.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Daggers and CrimeFest

I'm back home, briefly, following an action-packed CrimeFest in Bristol. The convention celebrated its tenth anniversary in style, and a large room was packed to the rafters for the panel about our celebratory anthology, Ten Year Stretch. Considering that my fellow panellists included Lee Child, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, Simon Brett, John Harvey, and moderator Donna Moore, that wasn't perhaps surprising, and we had a great time. It was also good to see fellow contributors such as Jeffrey Deaver and Zoe Sharp during the course of the weekend.

I also, as usual, enjoyed moderating the Authors Remembered panel. This time I shared the platform with Sarah Ward, Nick Triplow, John Lawton, Chrissie Poulson and a new friend, Chris Curran. As ever time flew by all too quickly: so many great books to discuss, so little time. Sarah also moderated a splendid panel on "England's Green and Pleasant Land" in which I took part.

A very special highlight for me was the announcement of the CWA Daggers longlists. I'm truly delighted to say that, for the first time, and rather incredibly, I've been nominated for two Daggers in the same year: the CWA Dagger in the Library, and the CWA ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction (the latter for The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, which has this year been nominated for four awards, two in the UK, two in the US). It's all rather dizzying, and I'm hugely grateful.

Among many other things, I was delighted to present Peter James with a personal memento recording the award to him (a couple of years ago) of the CWA Diamond Dagger (see him wielding it with great aplomb below!). I also had a highly enjoyable dinner with my publishers, about whom more news before long...All in all, a terrific week-end. The delegates were sorry to hear Adrian Muller announce at the Saturday night banquet that there is some uncertainty about whether CrimeFest will take place next year, but here's hoping...

Friday, 18 May 2018

Forgotten Book - Murders in Sequence

I'd heard a little about the American author Milton Propper before I finally got around to sampling his work. Several commentators have compared his work to that of Freeman Wills Crofts, whom Propper admired (he was also a fan of Lynn Brock, I gather from the Passing Tramp blog). I was rather intrigued by the title of his last novel, Murders in Sequence (and also by its alternative title, The Blood Transfusion Murder), which was first published in 1943. Propper (1906-62) was a writer in the Golden Age tradition; his first novel appeared in 1929..

After a group of young people have been out on the town in Philadelphia, a car crash results in serious injury to Victor Watson. His cousin, Eugene Talbot, volunteers to donate blood to help save his life, but Talbot is murdered before the transfusion can take place. The strange sequence of murders foretold by the book's British title then starts to unfold. And it appears that the crimes are linked to inheritance, and a tricky family tree.

The initial police investigation results in the arrest of the obvious suspect, whose girlfriend seeks help from Propper's regular detective, cop Tommy Rankin. He operates almost like an amateur sleuth, re-examining the work undertaken by colleagues,and discovering that the case is far more complex than it seemed at first sight. Unfortunately, I found the investigation, and even the dramatic final plot twist, rather less engaging than I'd hoped.

This is partly because Propper's style of writing is so undistinguished that he makes Crofts seem like Graham Greene. The characters are lifeless, and even Tommy is a rather dull dog. The plotting, although quite crafty, seemed to me to be less meticulous than Crofts'. All this is a pity, because in other hands, the plot could have been the foundation of a very lively story. After writing this book, Propper abandoned the genre, and it may be that the lacklustre writing reflects the fact that he'd wearied of detective fiction. His later life seems to be have been deeply unhappy, and ultimately he committed suicide. So it would be harsh to judge him on this book alone. His earlier work may well brim with zest, but that can't really be said of Murders in Sequence.

Forgotten Book - Holy Disorders

Holy Disorders was Edmund Crispin's second book, written in 1945 and published the following year, but set in wartime, and featuring German spies as well as Gervase Fen. It begins with a young composer called Geoffrey Vintner receiving a bizarre warning not to accept an invitation to travel to a small town called Tolnbridge to play the organ. An equally bizarre telegram from his old friend Fen asks him to buy a butterfly net.

When Geoffrey obediently goes to a department store to purchase the net, he is attacked, only to be rescued by a young man who works there, and whose name, he says, is Henry Fielding. He also reveals that he's a member of the aristocracy. What's more, he accompanies Geoffrey to Tolnbridge to help him find out what on earth is going on.

One organist at Tolnbridge has already bitten the dust, and before long there is another tragedy. Fen is as exuberant as ever, and irritatingly keeps saying that he knows what is happening, while refusing to reveal the truth to Geoffrey or the police. This know-all behaviour was, of course, a feature of Great Detectives - Hercule Poirot was apt to tease in similar fashion - but Fen rather overdoes it.

But that doesn't detract from the enjoyment of a complicated mystery with a startling "least likely person" solution. You don't read Crispin for the characterisation, and the main villain wasn't really believable to my mind, but there is more than adequate compensation in the witty writing. There's even a cluefinder element - footnotes to the closing pages referring the reader to the clues in earlier chapters. Great fun.

Forgotten Book - Mystery at Olympia

Mystery at Olympia

Not so long ago, the prospect of five of John Rhode's detective novels being republished as mass market paperbacks seemed as unlikely as the solutions to some of his more technically complicated mysteries. Rhode's books have long been popular with collectors (or at least, collectors with deep pockets), but the consensus in the publishing world was that there was no real market for them. But the British Library republished two of his Miles Burton novels with considerable success, and this breakthrough has been followed up by Harper Collins, with, so far, three more titles in paperback, plus a hardback of The Paddington Mystery due in June.

I've reviewed Death at Breakfast and Invisible Weapons previously; now it's time to take a look at Mystery at Olympia. This is a story which, on its first appearance in 1935, had a topicality and freshness about its opening scene. Rhode tried to keep up to date, and here he sets the first chapter at the Olympia Motor Show. Among the visitors is Dr Oldland, a chum of Dr Lancelot Priestley, and his professional skills are called upon when an elderly man collapses and dies from no apparent cause. The deceased, it turns out, rejoices in the name of Nahum Pershore, and Superintendent Hanslet soon has reason to suspect that he was murdered - but how, and by whom?

When Pershore's household is investigated, it becomes apparent that there have been some very strange goings-on in the run-up to his death. Someone shot him in the leg, but he made light of it, for some reason. The parlour-maid has been poisoned with arsenic. And another attempt seems to have been made on his life. In this story, unlike many of Rhode's, there's a good-sized cast of potential suspects, with a range of motives, and suspicion shifts around them in pleasing fashion.

So there are plenty of things to like about Mystery at Olympia. That said, it's also a novel that demonstrates Rhode's habitual failings. The first chapter devotes rather more than two pages to a discussion of a new motoring transmission device, but it proves not to have anything to do with the plot, and is simply a form of heavy-handed satire, when - speaking personally - I'd have been more entertained by a page or two devoted to satirising an obsession with cars. But that would have been too much for Rhode, whose love of motoring is also evident from the rather tedious The Motor Rally Mystery.

The murder method struck me as much more chancy than Rhode would have us believe, while the motive is thinly sketched. The same is true of books like The Motor Rally Mystery and Shot at Dawn, where Rhode's lack of interest in humanising his killers makes one as indifferent to their psychology and their fate as Dr Priestley, whose behaviour at the end of this novel offers an intriguing example of a Great Detective doing justice in his own inimitable way. Not a masterpiece, then, but certainly worth a look.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Ten Year Stretch - celebrating a decade of CrimeFest

Image result for ten year stretch

Tomorrow I set off for Bristol, and CrimeFest, which this year is celebrating its tenth anniversary. I've attended every single one, and they are always great fun. So I was delighted when, a couple of years ago, the organisers approached me and asked if I'd like to help them to put together an anthology to celebrate CrimeFest, and also raise money for a very worthwhile cause, the RNIB Talking Books Library.

The result of our endeavours has just seen the light of day. Ten Year Stretch, edited by myself and Adrian Muller of CrimeFest, is published by No Exit Press. The list of contributors is quite glittering: it includes such luminaries as Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Jeffrey Deaver, Sophie Hannah, Mick Herron, Ian Rankin, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, and Andrew Taylor. There is also a story from the legendary Maj Sjowall which has been freshly translated from the Swedish by Catherine Edwards, journalist, editor, linguist - and daughter of the co-editor!

I've always believed that diversity of content is the hallmark of a great anthology, and we certainly have that in abundance in Ten Year Stretch. Ann, for instance, has written a "locked tent mystery" set in Africa, and hers is not the only variation on the classic "locked room" theme: I really hope that the new character she introduces will return in future. As for my own story, "Strangers in a Pub", it too introduces a sleuthing odd couple who may well return at some future date. I enjoyed writing about them and would like to explore their continuing relationship in fresh adventures.

It was both a pleasure and a privilege to read the stories as they came in, one by one, over the course of time. Getting the chance of a sneak preview of a new Child, Rankin, or Deaver is a hugely enjoyable treat for any crime fan. Over the weekend, among other things, I'll be taking part in a panel with Lee, Ian, and Yrsa, and every delegate will receive a free copy of our book, thanks to the generous support of Jane Burfield, to whom we have dedicated the anthology. It should be yet another wonderful convention.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Guernsey and Jersey

I'm back home, briefly, after a trip to the Channel Islands, one of my favourite destinations. Originally, I was asked to give a library talk in Jersey, and this led in due course to a similar invitation from the library in Guernsey; that in turn prompted the organisers of Guernsey Literary Festival to get in touch. So in the space of a couple of hectic days, I undertook three events on two islands and met a good many pleasant people.

I was even given the bonus of a short sightseeing trip around the west coast of Guernsey, with a chance to see the little off-shore island of Lihue as well as to visit an ancient cavern steeped in myth and legend. Then it was off to St Peter Port, and a workshop on crime writing at Les Cotils, with a group which included, to my surprise and delight, that excellent blogger Harriet Devine. I've not run many workshops, but this one was so interesting that I'm tempted to do them more regularly.

On Friday evening I gave a talk about The Golden Age of Murder at Guernsey Library, and also had the chance to catch up with fellow crime writer Jason Monaghan (who sometimes writes as Jason Foss) and the editor of The Golden Age of Murder, David Brawn, whose presence on the island was a delightful coincidence. The three of us had dinner together after the talk, a convivial end to a rather long day.

It was up early again to take the short flight to Jersey, with a chance to look around St Helier before I gave another Golden Age talk to an excellent audience. After dinner I headed back to my hotel and promptly went to sleep for eleven hours: tiredness rather than too much to drink, I can assure you! But next morning I managed to fit in a little more sightseeing before catching the flight back to Manchester.

I've visited the Channel Islands six or seven times over the years, and each time I find something new and intriguing about them. On my last visit, I even planned out a short story set in Alderney, though I fear that it still remains unwritten. One of these days I do hope to get round to writing a mystery set on one of the islands. In the meantime, I'm very grateful to those who looked after me so well during my whistle-stop tour, and I'm very much looking forward to my next trip there - which will be in September, for the Jersey Literary Festival. 

Friday, 11 May 2018

Forgotten Book - The Saltmarsh Murders

It's fair to say that the exuberant detective fiction of Gladys Mitchell is an acquired taste. Julian Symons, one of the best judges of all, never acquired it, and it's easy to understand why. Her books, or at least those that I've read (she was very prolific, and I've focused on reading her work from the 30s and 40s) often seem rather over the top. But I get the impression that she was a fun person, and had fun writing her novels, and that in itself I find appealing.

The Saltmarsh Murders, first published in 1932, was her fourth novel featuring Mrs Bradley, who is fine form, cackling and screeching as she sets about solving a whole series of mysteries which centre around the little coastal resort of Saltmarsh. The story is narrated by Noel Wells, the local curate, but one thing is for sure. This is really not a re-run of The Murder at the Vicarage. In place of Christie's coolly assembled and crystal clear storyline, we have a whirl of activity that often threatens to descend into incoherence - though it just about avoids doing so.

The starting point is that Meg Tosstick, a young girl who works at the vicarage, has got pregnant. Rumours swirl as to who the father might be. The baby is born, but nobody sees it. Then Meg disappears, and in due course is discovered to have been murdered. But there is more, much more going on than that.

I found some of the comedy in the book quite effective; not for nothing is mention made by Noel Wells of P.G. Wodehouse. Some of it, however, has not stood the test of time, while the presence in the story of a black servant prompts some depressing racial stereotyping. And although the presentation of sexual repression might have seemed advanced in the 30s, it's now unappealing. However, if you can cope with all the downsides of Mitchell's eccentric approach to crime writing, this is a book that most of her devotees regard as one of her very best. Me? I'm glad I read it, but I prefer Christie, no question.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn - book review

A. J. Finn's debut novel The Woman in the Window has been riding high in the bestselling charts, and having read it, I can see why. Finn's story blends classic ingredients of psychological suspense with an unreliable narrator, excellent plot twists, and (especially in the early part of the book) compelling prose. There are a lot of books in this vein at present, but this is one I can safely recommend.

The premise of the story owes a great deal to the master of the emotional thriller, Cornell Woolrich: it's really lifted straight out of Rear Window, and Finn cleverly makes a virtue out of this borrowing by having his narrator, Anna Fox, talk endlessly about film noir. Anna is confined to her apartment by agoraphobia, and whiles away her time by spying on her neighbours. Needless to say, the day comes when she sees something shocking - but when the police come on the scene, her account appears to be incredible, and nobody believes her. What on earth is going on?

Although the premise is familiar, what Finn does with it is so cunningly thought out that I'd better not say too much about the way the storyline develops. I felt that Woolrich and his French disciples Boileau and Narcejac (Vertigo, based on their most famous book, is naturally referenced in this story) would not only have recognised the way Finn sets up his mystery, but also admired it. The question then is: can Finn resolve the puzzle he's created without letting us down? Woolrich in particular often struggled to avoid anti-climax, but I think Finn does an excellent job in tying up the loose ends. Having read this skilfully crafted novel, I wasn't in this least surprised to discover that Finn was an experienced book editor.

Finn's real name is Daniel Mallory, and I've been interested to read interviews in which he's discussed his experience of misdiagnosed depression - a topic I touched on the other day in the context of writers and wellbeing. That experience has evidently fed into his presentation of Anna, a deeply troubled woman, who seems to me to be portrayed very effectively. Yes, I enjoyed this book very much. The real challenge for Finn is now simply this: how can I improve on my excellent debut? 

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Writing and Wellbeing

From my early years, I've been fascinated by stories - hearing or reading them as well as telling them. Stories always seemed to me to represent a way of escaping from the real world and into my imagination, and growing up, I found that extremely appealing. I still do. Even when something from real life influences my fiction (for instance, the Crippen case which inspired Dancing for the Hangman), my main focus is on the imaginative aspects of the story. And stories also offer us ways of trying to understand the world (and the people in it) a little better. That's surely one of the key reasons why perfectly law-abiding people love stories about crime and criminals.

Writing and wellbeing seem to me to have clear and close connections, and these have interested me for a very long time. At Malice Domestic, Catriona McPherson made a telling point when she reminded us that, in many ways, writers' lives are privileged: she drew a comparison with the work of psychiatric nurses, for instance. Having once worked for six months as the world's most incompetent factory labourer, I know she's right; I'd much rather be a writer than anything else. Equally, it's the case that, for many writers, the privileges are offset by the downsides - emotional and financial insecurity and rejection being among them.

Writing can, apart from anything else, act as a very positive form of therapy, even for those who don't seek to publish what they write. I know that when I was at my lowest ebb, eight years ago, when everything that could go wrong in a hitherto blessed life seemed to be going wrong, writing was a lifeline. And this blog, and the kindness of its readers, played a valuable part in helping me to get through an extremely difficult time.

The Society of Authors recently took wellbeing as a theme for an issue of its quarterly magazine, and this prompted me to start an initiative on behalf of the Crime Writers' Association. I wanted to encourage the sharing of experiences so that members who were encountering setbacks would realise they are not alone, and that some of the taboos would start to break down. Simon Brett, a friend and a man I've long admired, has written movingly about his own struggles with depression, and at my suggestion he contributed an article to the CWA members' private newsletter, Red Herrings.

This has in turn prompted further articles and also thoughtful online discussion, just as I'd hoped. And only today, C.J. Sansom wrote a moving article in The Sunday Times about his own experience of depression, which stems back to his childhood and unhappy time at school. Each person's experience is different, but understanding more about what individuals have gone through (and, where they've been able to overcome difficulties, how they've gone about it) is important in so many ways.

Progress has been made in recent years in terms of reducing the stigmas that surround mental health problems, but fresh challenges for writers have emerged, and the public nature of social media (wonderful though it can be) exacerbates the problems. So I believe that talking about these things (which is very different from over-sharing), rather than hiding away from them, is a Good Thing, and I'm glad to find that others take the same view. None of us want to dwell too long on gloom and doom; there's enough of that in the world already. But recognising that life has its downs as well as its ups equips us better - in the long run - to value and make the most of those ups.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Forgotten Book- Printer's Devil

Sometimes an old book is a lovely thing to have, even if its contents are less than scintillating. That isn't a view I've always held. At one time, for me, the story was always the thing. But in the last fifteen years or so, I've enjoyed collecting old crime novels, especially if they have an interesting signature or inscription. And I was fortunate to be able to acquire from the estate of a great collector and crime fan, Bob Adey, a number of terrific books.

One of them is Printer's Devil, by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson. It's a scarce novel, by two founder members of the Detection Club who were undoubtedly skilful writers, first published in 1930. The copy which I bought from Bob's estate is still in its jacket, and has been signed by Helen Simpson. A very nice thing to have. The next question: is the story any good?

This was a follow-up to Enter Sir John, featuring Sir John Samaurez, which was filmed by Hitchcock as Murder! Samaurez also plays a part in this story, but in a very minor role. The book clearly shows the authors' shared ambition to raise the literary standard of the crime novel, focusing on people as well as plot. And according to the jacket blurb, "right to the last page readers will be undecided whether they have enjoyed a first-rate comedy or a breath-taking thriller, for both are to be found in this story".

I'm sorry to say, however, that I wasn't undecided, because I didn't find it remotely breath-taking or thrilling. The premise of the story is interesting and unusual: a pioneering woman publisher is presented with a manuscript by her star author. He's written something scandalous, full of revelations about people's secrets. The publisher, a decent woman, is deeply concerned about the implications of the book, and soon she is found dead. A coroner's jury brings in a verdict of misadventure? But could it in truth have been a case of murder?

The trouble is that there is not much mystery about it all, and the "crime" element of the book could have been put across in a short story, where it would have worked well. Because it's smothered by dated humour, and a romance that I found extremely tedious (it's "ridiculous, charming", according to the blurb", but the charm was lost on me) I wasn't impressed. The fact the book is well-written isn't adequate compensation for the fact that it's not terribly interesting to a modern reader. What we have here, I think, is an experiment which fails because the authors strike the wrong balance between people and plot. In that respect, you might say that Printer's Devil makes Gaudy Night look like And Then There Were None. But I'm still glad to have Bob's copy.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Malice Domestic

I'm back home from Malice Domestic 30. Malice is an excellent convention that I've recommended before and will definitely be recommending many times in the future; it's for all those who enjoy the traditional mystery. It's also very slickly organised by an experienced Board whose hard-working members are committed to making sure that everyone has a great time. This year, the convention moved to a new hotel, still in Bethesda, Maryland, and conveniently close to a Metro station, so that I was able to fit in some sight-seeing in Washington DC before the festivities began.

Those sights included the lovely garden at Dumbarton Oaks, where the spring blossom was gorgeous and memorable, and the famous steps which feature in the film of The Exorcist. Naturally, I fitted in second hand bookshop or two, though for once I resisted the temptation to purchase, knowing that many good books would await me at Malice. Washington DC is a marvellous tourist spot, and the Georgetown area is among its attractive destinations. For dinner,  a historic restaurant with the irresistible name of Martin's Tavern proved a brilliant recommendation, not just because the food was good but because it's a place brimming with atmosphere and history; among other things, it's where JFK proposed to Jackie. And when the sun shone, I even found myself reading a book for an hour in the improbable setting of the middle of a busy roundabout, at the rather appealing Dupont Circle.

This year's recipient of the Poirot Award was Brenda Blethyn, twice-nominated for Academy  Awards, and now renowned as DCI Vera Stanhope. As last year's recipient, I was asked to host a discussion with Brenda and Vera's creator, Ann Cleeves. There could have been no easier or more pleasurable task, and the vast ballroom was packed. My thanks to Elisa Varey for the photos. The following day I was on an Agatha nominees panel with Cindy Callaghan and Mattias Bostrum, and then on Sunday Kristopher Zygorski moderated a panel about the darker side of traditional fiction with his customary verve.

As always at these events, there was a chance to catch up with old and valued friends, such as Doug Greene, Josh Pachter, Shelly Dickson Carr, Les and Leslie Blatt, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Catriona (who is in the photo with me below), Cathy Ace, Michael Dirda, Janet Hutchings, and many more, as well as to make new ones - Mattias, Patricia Gouthro (who interviewed me for a research project), and Gabriel Valjean among others.

These contacts are a hugely enjoyable part of a convention, even if at times the whirl of activity can become a bit overwhelming. I have to admit that I was running out of energy before the time came to brave the long double flight back to Manchester, and I've arrived home rather wearily. But I need to spring back into action soon - my next flights and next festival are next week...

Monday, 30 April 2018

Trial of Louise Masset - Notable British Trials No. 85

For anyone interested in the history of crime and punishment, the Notable British Trials series has long been a rich source of reliable information. The original series, published by William Hodge and Company, became extremely well-known, and its recent revival by Mango Books is welcome. The second of the "Mango" titles has now been published; it is the Trial of Louise Masset, edited by Kate Clarke.

I must admit that I knew next to nothing about this case, sometimes known as "the Dalston mystery", before picking up this book. It deals with that most horrible of crimes, the murder of a very young and defenceless child. The body was soon identified as three-year old Manfred Masset. His mother Louise was the prime suspect right from the outset.

Louise was a governess in her mid-thirties. Manfred was illegitimate, and in the late 1890s, that was of course a source of social stigma. The position of an unmarried mother was extremely difficult and stressful. Louise vehemently denied killing her own child. On her account she'd already arrived in Brighton, where she was planning to spend the week-end with her new lover, Eudore Lewis (Eudore is a new name to me, I must admit.) The couple registered in the hotel under false names, claiming to be brother and sister.

Louise's denials didn't persuade the police. Eventually, they failed to persuade the jury. She was sentenced to death, and became the first person to be executed in Britain in the 20th century, a miserable distinction. But as Kate Clarke explains, the case was less straightforward than it might seem. There are some remarkable ingredients, not least the involvement of Arthur Newton, the dodgiest solicitor of his era, who would later act for Dr Crippen. Train times come into the story, rather as in a mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts. All in all, a welcome addition to an excellent series.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Forgotten Book - Death in Five Boxes

Death in Five Boxes is a novel featuring Sir Henry Merrivale that was first published in 1938. The author was Carter Dickson, the pen-name under which John Dickson Carr wrote about H.M., "the old man". And I must say that the opening scenario of this story shows Carr at his most brilliant. It's quite entrancing.

A young doctor, walking in central London one night, is accosted by a pretty young woman, who is a state of some distress. She wants him to accompany her into a house, and when he agrees to do so, first they encounter a blood-stained umbrella-cum-swordstick, and then they are presented with a bizarre situation. Five people in a room, four of them in a drugged state, the fifth one dead. One of those who is still alive is the young woman's father...

It's a great premise, and Carr develops it splendidly in the next chapters. All the people in the room are rich and well-known, all of them are - allegedly - criminals. What on earth do we make of the strange items found on their person, such as a smattering of quicklime, four watches, and part of the insides of an alarm clock? Not to mention the five boxes which apparently contain deadly secrets, and have been stolen from a solicitor's office. It's all weird, and all entrancing. Suffice to say that I was absolutely hooked.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm waned as the story progressed. The complications about how the drug was administered began to wear me down, and the presence in the story of a renowned cat burglar rather irritated me (perhaps this was unreasonable of me). We are presented with a "least likely person" culprit, but I felt, again perhaps unreasonably, that this character's motivation hadn't been adequately foreshadowed. Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention. In the end, I felt that a superb situation was rather inadequately resolved. But full marks for the set-up; it really did grip me. 

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Quai des Orfevres - film review

The famous French film director Henri-Georges Clouzot was a fan of the Belgian crime writer Stanislas-Andre Steeman, and one of his most highly regarded movies, Quai des Orfevres, is among his adaptations of Steeman's fiction. So the story goes, Clouzot started writing the script without having access to the novel, Legitime Defense, which had been published during the war and was out of print at the time. And this reflects the fact that Clouzot, like his English counterpart Hitchcock, was not primarily concerned with whodunit.

The story features Jenny, played by Clouzot's long-time companion Suzy Delair (still alive, I gather, at the splendid age of 100), who is a talented and sexy singer and a performer ambitious to get on in the world. She's married to Martineau (Bernard Blier), a quiet pianist who is driven to jealousy by her flirtatious ways. She cares for him, but is determined not to allow him to dominate her or wreck her prospects of fame. 

A wealthy old lecher called Brignon takes a fancy to Jenny, in a scenario which, unfortunately, remains topical to this day. Martineau begs Jenny not to agree to see Brignon again, but she reckons she can take care of herself. He constructs an alibi at a theatre while following her to the place where he reckons she is due to meet Brignon, only to find that Brignon is dead. It seems clear that Jenny has killed him, and Martineau can't resist the temptation to interfere with the crime scene. Meanwhile, Jenny's friend Dora, a photographer who used to take nude pictures of Brignon's conquests, tries to help her out.

Louis Jouvet plays the detective who is soon on the trail. His performance is highly enjoyable, and overall this is a film which has earned the critics' admiration over the years. It has a depth, as well as a number of very pleasing touches, and it's probably one of those films that merits at least a second viewing to appreciate everything. I didn't find it quite as impressive as Le Corbeau
a film Clouzot made a few years earlier, or Les Diaboliques, which most people regard as his masterpiece, but it's definitely worth seeking out.   

Monday, 23 April 2018

Peter Lovesey - Grand Master

Image result for "martin edwards" "peter lovesey"

At last year's CrimeFest, I had the easiest and most pleasurable of tasks, that of interviewing Peter Lovesey about his remarkable career, and a week ago, we had the chance to get together again during the CWA's annual conference, and the book-signing that followed it. (Peter is a former CWA Chair, and his continuing commitment to the CWA is something his fellow members greatly appreciate). Right now, he's in the US, and later this week at the Mystery Writers of America Edgars awards ceremony, he will be honoured as an MWA Grand Master.

The array of awards that Peter has received, over an astonishing span of almost half a century, is quite breathtaking. Right from the start, he made an impact on the genre, winning the Macmillan/Panther First Crime Novel prize for his debut Wobble to Death. He won the CWA Gold Dagger for that marvellous mystery The False Inspector Dew, and he's also picked up a couple of CWA Silver Daggers. He won the CWA Diamond Dagger in 2000, And there are many others. Take a look at the long list on his website.

His latest novel, Beau Death, is an excellent illustration of his versatility. There's a freshness of approach in his work, a refusal to be constrained by formula, that keeps his books as engaging today as when he first started writing. The quiet humour of his work is another important ingredient in his novels, and I should also say that he is unquestionably one of the finest short mystery writers to have emerged in the past fifty years. If you'd like to see the videos of my CrimeFest interview with Peter  that Ali Karim kindly allowed me to post on my Youtube channel, take a look here.

But there's much more to Peter Lovesey than wonderful writing. His kindness and modesty are admired by those who know him. You have only to look at the many tributes paid to him by his fellow Detection Club members in Motives for Murder, the short story collection I edited in celebration of his 80th birthday eighteen months ago, to see that. I'm truly delighted that he's agreed to give a talk about his classic and contemporary crime fiction at Alibis in the Archives in June (and there are a few non-residential places still available if you're in the UK then). In the meantime, warmest congratulations on becoming a Grand Master, Peter. You are the worthiest of recipients.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Forgotten Book - The Tin Tree

I've been musing recently on the impact that the First World War had on detective fiction, and among other things this led me to read The Tin Tree by James Quince, a book that's been on my TBR pile for a while now. Quince's pen-name masked the identity of J.R. Spittall, who signed my copy; he was a clergyman, and his career as a crime writer was quite brief, extending to a mere three novels.

The Tin Tree was the first, and it's a curious book. The opening scenes capture, very effectively in my opinion, the grim reality of soldiering during the First World War, as well as the eerie foggy environment surrounding the eponymous tin tree. The tree, built by the French army, was an observation post, with a ladder inside its trunk, and a platform "commanding an excellent view of the German lines".

The narrator of the story rejoices in the name of Roger Budockshed, although he's nicknamed, equally improbably, Secco - after Seccotine, which apparently is a brand of refined liquid fish glue. He is puzzled by a gunner called Rachelson, who is something of a mystery man. Eventually Rachelson confides in him, explaining that his real name is Montaubon, and that he's begun a new life after going on the run, following a murder in which he was the prime suspect.

It's an interesting set-up, but the story meanders quite a lot after that before reaching a twisty and pleasing climax that anticipates (in a sense) the plot-line of one of Agatha Christie's radio plays; both Quince's story and Christie's are based on the same classic precedent. The fact that the story sags in the middle is the mark of an inexperienced novelist, but Quince was a capable writer, and there is enough here to make it worth persevering, despite the longeurs.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

"Catch of the Day"

It's not often that my fiction appears in close proximity to that of the great Ben Okri (well, it's never happened before, if I'm honest), so you can imagine that I'm very happy to find my brand new short story appearing alongside one of his (and others by the likes of Sophie Hannah and Elly Griffiths). "Catch of the Day" is one of six stories to be found in Skald, an exciting and innovative collection produced by Audible.

The story behind my involvement with this collection is unusual. It goes back to March last year, when I took part in the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai. Among other things, I was interviewed with Rob Davies about Golden Age fiction and the British Library Crime Classics. Ellah Wakatama Allfrey proved to be an excellent interviewer, and it all went swimmingly. And shortly after my trip to the Festival, I set off for Honolulu, for Left Coast Crime. Because Hawaii is so far away, it made sense to expand my stay there, and I spent a few days on each of three very attractive islands, Oahu, Kauai, and Maui.

I had in mind, as I always do on these trips, that I'd soak up the local atmosphere, and research the places I visited, in the hope that an idea for a work of fiction of some kind would come along. And so it did. In fact, quite a few possible plotlines hopped into my mind, and before long, I started to sketch out a mystery set on Kauai, an island which I found entrancing. I decided it should be a first person narrative, told by a local driver, as I'd picked up quite a bit of background colour from drivers I met.

Then, out of the blue, Ellah came back into my life with news of the Audible project, and a commission for a new story with a theme of "discovery". She liked the concept of "Catch of the Day", and this spurred me into action. I found her editorial input extremely valuable, and I'm pleased with the resultant story. The photos illustrating in the post were all taken in Kauai and all feature locations mentioned in the story - except for the photo at the end, taken at the Emirates Literature Festival interview.

I'm trying, as a crime writer, to develop my skills and to stretch in fresh directions. This seems to me to be the best way to try to enthuse an increasing number of readers. I've been publishing fiction for a long time, but you can always improve, and this is what I keep aiming to do. And it certainly helps when you have a good and sympathetic editor. I'll never be a Ben Okri, admittedly, but after years of striving, I do feel that my fiction is moving in a more exciting direction than ever before. More news on that front shortly, I hope!   

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Roderic Jeffries R.I.P.

I've just been told that the crime writer Roderic Jeffries, who also wrote as Jeffrey Ashford and Peter Alding, died last year at the age of 90. He'd been living in Mallorca for over forty years, which perhaps explains not only why I've never come across him in person but also why his books have tended, in recent years, to be rather overlooked.

Jeffries was a prolific crime writer, as was his father, Bruce Graeme (whose real name was Graham Montague Jeffries). Graeme, a leading light in the Crime Writers' Association during its formative years, and a good friend of the CWA founder John Creasey, wrote a wide range of mysteries, but was best known as the creator of Blackshirt, a Robin Hood type of character, and Roderic wrote a number of Blackshirt novels himself in the Fifties and Sixties, as Roderic Graeme.

Roderic spent a few years in the legal profession, practising as a barrister, and this gave him material for some of his early crime novels from 1960 onwards. Many of his books appeared under the legendary Collins Crime Club imprint, which, like the Gollancz yellow dustjacket, was in the Sixties and for many years before a brand associated with reliable writers who were library favourites (not to mention stars such as Reginald Hill and Robert Barnard, both of whom were ten years younger than Roderic). More recently, his work has been published by Severn House, a company which has filled the gap left by the disappearance of the Crime Club and Gollancz imprints very effectively.

Mistakenly in Mallorca, which appeared in 1974, introduced Inspector Enrique Alvarez, who became a very long-running series character indeed. The only interview I've come across featuring Roderic is to be found here on the blog of J. Sydney Jones.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Shrewsbury and the CWA conference

I've just returned from Shrewsbury after an exhilarating weekend. It was the CWA's annual conference, an event I've rarely missed over the past thirty years. The setting was lovely - the ancient town is crammed with history and interest, and the Lion Hotel, whose previous guests have included Darwin, de Quincey and Paganini, was a splendidly historic venue.

The speakers included the legendary investigative psychologist David Canter, author of the Gold Dagger-winning Criminal Shadows, who shared many insights about the pros and cons of offender profiling. A psychiatrist explored the way that her discipline can contribute to cutting edge fiction. A forensic expert cleverly updated us on latest forensic techniques, and how they might be used in solving The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. There were talks about Ellis Peters, and about marketing books in the modern age. A leading scientific advisor to government was the after dinner speaker. And there was much more besides...

Quite a bit of alcohol was quaffed, and we also had a visit to Tanners' ancient wine cellars, again fascinating and historic. A ghost tour around the town was followed by a trip to the castle and the amazing public library, where an extremely old building which once housed Shrewsbury School has been cleverly integrated into a modern facility. I've never seen a library like it. There was also a book-signing at Waterstones.

It was great fun to catch up with old friends and also to meet many of the CWA's newer members, such as playwright Derek Webb, novelists Stephen Norman and Jo Summers, and human rights campaigner Stephen Jakobi. Great credit goes to Cilla Masters for organising things with such verve, and to Dea Parkin for all her support work. As for the CWA's AGM, it was a well-attended forum for lively debate and some very good exchanges of ideas for the future. And the upshot is that I've been re-elected as Chair of the CWA for a further (and definitely, definitely final) twelve-month term. It's a great honour to lead such a thriving and fun organisation. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

Forgotten Book - Death Knocks Three Times

Lucy Malleson was an interesting and capable writer who enjoyed a good deal of success without ever, really "breaking through" into the literary big-time. After her death in 1973, her work quickly faded from view, but she'd had a long career, writing under a variety of pen-names: J. Kilmeny Keith, Anthony Gilbert, and Anne Meredith. The Gilbert name became the best-known, but last year I was delighted to write an introduction for her first Anne Meredith novel, Portrait of a Murderer, when it became the Christmas title for the British Library's Crime Classics series. The book did well- so well, in fact, that although the main focus was on the paperback edition, I gather that the hardback edition swiftly sold more copies than the original first edition! Who would have expected that?

I've read a few of the Anthony Gilbert titles over the years, and I've had mixed feelings about them. She was a capable writer, and she had the important strength of caring about her work which meant that she was not content to stick rigidly to a single storytelling formula. Her main protagonist, Arthur Crook, is a rascally solicitor, so you might think he has a particular appeal for me, but in truth I'm not much of a Crook fan. Sometimes he seems to get in the way of the story, and to me, it's no surprise that a good film made of one of her books, My Name is Julia Ross cut him out of the storyline altogether. So did the remake, Dead of Winter.

All of which brings me to Death Knocks Three Times, a novel she published in 1949. The date is significant, because a key element of the story is the period setting: we really get a feel of life in post-war austerity Britain, although some of the political comments seem a bit delphic to a modern reader. The story begins, like others such as The Nine Tailors, with the detective hero - if one can call Crook a hero - stuck in the middle of a car journey due to bad weather, and taking refuge somewhere just before a mysterious sudden death occurs.

It's not quite clear whether murder has taken place (though the reader will suspect it has...) and the action then shifts to a sequence of poison pen letters, sent to a rather unpleasant elderly lady, who summons help from another woman, who is very nicely characterised and whose name is Frances Pettigrew (was Gilbert referencing Cyril Hare's Francis Pettigrew? Given the number of literary and specifically crime fiction allusions in the book, it is possible). Anyway, as the book title suggests, two more deaths fall to be considered, but an unusual air of mystery pervades the story. It's far from clear what is really going on until Crook comes up with an explanation - which, to be honest, I didn't find wholly satisfying, especially in relation to the first death. 

This is a novel that has earned rave reviews from good judges such as John Norris. For my part, I admired Gilbert's ambition, and her attempt to do something different and unusual, but I felt that the narrative was too diffuse to be altogether successful, and Crook's muted role also felt rather unsatisfactory. An interesting book, though, and despite my reservations I'm glad I read it.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Tenth Man - DVD review

The Tenth Man was originally written by Graham Greene as a film script. Abandoned for many years, it became a TV screenplay, directed by Jack Gold (whose work included Praying Mantis, a terrific thriller which I'd love to see again). I missed the TV broadcast thirty years ago, but caught up with it on DVD recently, and felt that it put many films to shame, in terms of casting, production values, and emotional impact.

Anthony Hopkins plays Chaval, a rich and selfish lawyer in occupied France, who one day in 1941 is picked up by the Nazis and thrown into jail. They used to pick hostages at random off the street, and execute a handful of them every now and then in an attempt to terrorise people into submission. A pivotal moment occurs when it's announced that one in ten of the men in jail are to be shot. Lots are drawn, and Chaval is unlucky. But he persuades a fellow prisoner to be executed in his place, in return for the gift of his home and possessions, which the prisoner intends to leave to his mother and sister.

When the war ends, Chaval is freed, but has no money. He makes his way back to his old home, and inveigles himself into the household, using a false identity. He finds that the sister (Kristin Scott Thomas) has been waiting for Chaval's return, because she wants to kill him for being, in effect, responsible for her brother's death. Slowly, a bond forms between him and the sister. All goes well until one day a stranger arrives (played by Derek Jacobi), claiming to be Chaval...

The story is a strong one, and the game-playing about identities works very well. The quality of the acting from the three charismatic stars, and of Gold's direction, is impressive. I find it astonishing that this script was apparently forgotten for so many years; I'm a Greene fan, and I think The Tenth Man ranks with his best work.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Black Widow - 1954 film review

Black Widow is a popular title for crime films. The one I'm discussing today showed up recently on the wonderful Talking Pictures TV channel. I've made many fascinating discoveries thanks to Talking Pictures. As with forgotten books, there are some forgotten movies that really ought to be left in peace. But Black Widow, I was delighted to find, is based on the book of the same name by Patrick Quentin. I've read quite a lot of Quentin books (and novels by the PQ alter ego, Q. Patrick) and they are invariably well-plotted. Black Widow is no exception.

The film was made in Cinemascope, and the bright colours slightly distract from the darkness of the storyline. It's almost a film noir in mood, if not in look. The cast is very strong, with Van Heflin, a dependable performer, playing the hero, Peter Denver (in the books, Peter Duluth - was that surname deemed "too difficult" for audiences of the time?) At the start of the film, Peter is waving goodbye to his beloved wife Iris (Gene Tierney) at the airport. She's off to look after her sick mother, and she urges him to show his face at a party thrown by an actress who is starring in Peter's current show, and who lives in the same block as the Denvers.

The actress is "Lottie" Marin, played by Ginger Rogers (who doesn't dance in this story.) She's a famously unkind woman with a huge ego and a sharp tongue. Her husband Brian (Reginald Gardiner) is a weak character who allows her to bully him. At the party, Peter meets a young woman, Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner) and they become friends. Their relationship is platonic, but Peter invites her to stay in his apartment while Iris is away, and on the day of her return, Nancy is found there, dead. It appears to be a case of suicide, but soon questions arise. Is it possible that Peter has killed her?

The plot is pleasingly convoluted, although I found Nancy's psychology slightly baffling. Peter, naturally, tries to find out what is going on, but the official detective work is undertaken by a cop played by George Raft, whom one associates more with gangster roles. Even as a detective, he is pretty menacing. The film wasn't a huge box office hit, but it's worn pretty well, mainly because of the cast and the strength of the plot twists. Overall, definitely worth watching.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Forgotten Book - The Rynox Mystery

Image result for rynox philip macdonald

Philip Macdonald was one of the breezy entertainers of the Golden Age, an author with a flair for coming up with enticing scenarios. The republication of The Rynox Mystery in the Detective Story Club reprint series gives present day readers a chance to appreciate one of his most appealing set-ups. The book begins with an epilogue, a device used in other crime novels (for instance C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High). But I can't think right now of an example that predates this one, from 1930.

In the epilogue, two large and heavy sacks are delivered to the offices of an insurance company. When the unexpected delivery is opened, it turns out that the sacks contain more than a quarter of a million pounds. A lot of money today, never mind in 1930. What's the meaning of it? We go back in time to find out, and Macdonald presents his chapters as "reels"; no wonder he later moved to Hollywood.
This is a light thriller rather than a whodunit, and it's short and snappy if at times a little too whimsical.

The puzzle concerns the misadventures of a company called Rynox, and the demise of its presiding genius. The identity of the killer appears obvious, but the police struggle to identify him. What is going on? Well, I think most astute readers will figure out the answer, but not to worry. It's not a bad story, and this edition benefits from an intro written by Macdonald himself in the 60s, which I found interesting. He explains that he was aiming to satirise a number of people and institutions, though I'm afraid some of the point of the satire has been lost due to the passage of time.

Another extremely pleasing touch, given that the novel is a short one, is that Harper Collins have added value by including the one and only short story to feature Macdonald's Great Detective, Colonel Anthony Gethryn (who doesn't feature in the novel). The story is called "The Wood-for-the-Trees", and it's a serial killer mystery, with a plot device that crime fans will associate with a rather famous novel.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Hell is a City - 1960 film review

Of all the black and white British cop films of the 50s and early 60s, Hell is a City stands out. There were some other good police movies, certainly, but this one, directed by Val Guest, is excellent from start to finish. There are two reasons for this.

First, the source material. The film was based on Somewhere in the City, a novel by Maurice Procter, who had been a serving police officer before his writing career took off. Procter's books were authentic, and this authenticity is, thankfully, preserved in the movie version. I've been a Procter fan for a long time, and about twenty years ago, I wrote an intro for another of his books, The Midnight Plumber, which features Harry Martineau, as this story does. The late Peter Walker, another cop who became a crime writer, told me that Procter encouraged him to join the CWA back in the 60s. They never actually met, but Peter took the advice and went on to become Chair of the CWA.

Second, the acting. The cast is excellent, and the brilliant Stanley Baker is ideally suited to the role of Martineau, who is married, but not very happily, to the equally discontented Maxine Audley. Billie Whitelaw makes a brief but telling contribution as an ex girlfriend of the killer on the run whom Martineau is hunting, and her husband is played by Donald Pleasence, taking a meek rather than sinister role for once. Joby Blanchard, who starred in Doomwatch, is one of the bad guys, and George A. Cooper, Warren Mitchell, Russell Napier, and even John Comer and Doris ("Annie Walker") Speed in very small parts, all contribute.

The story is a simple one. It's a manhunt, and we're never in doubt that Martineau will get his man. But Val Guest's screenplay compels interest from start to finish, and although Stanley Black's jazzy soundtrack is occasionally intrusive, overall it adds to the atmosphere. The scenes on the moors north east of Manchester, which a few years later would become associated with Brady and Hindley, also make an atmospheric background to key parts of the film. Recommended.

Monday, 2 April 2018

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena - book review

Image result for shari lapena

The Couple Next Door is a bestselling novel of psychological suspense by Shari Lapena, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in the whirl of the Toronto Bouchercon last year. Shari, who is herself based in Toronto, is a former lawyer, and I've always particularly enjoyed reading the crime fiction of legal eagles who have managed to fly away from the desk, the computer, and the clients for long enough to write a novel.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm a long-term fan of novels of psychological suspense, and when I read them, I find myself not only enjoying the story (assuming it's a good one) but also of studying the approach taken by the writer - whether it's Patricia Highsmith or Celia Fremlin in days gone by, or Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn today. For instance, a key decision is whether to opt for a first person narrative, or a third person single viewpoint narrative. Shari Lapena has chosen the third person multiple viewpoint method, and it's a choice well-suited to her plot. A key reason why it works so well is that it enables her to shift suspicion around a small cast of characters in a very effective way.

In a nutshell, this is a "baby in jeopardy" thriller.  Anne and Marco have been invited round to dinner by Graham and Cynthia, the couple next door, and have unwisely succumbed to pressure from Cynthia to leave their tiny daughter Cora at home, checking on her regularly. You can guess what's coming, can't you?

It's a long time since my own children were as small as Cora, but anyone who's been a parent can, I think, empathise with the terror of Anne and Marco as their life together rapidly falls apart, with Cora missing, and the police deeply suspicious that one or both of them may be implicated in the kidnap. Losing your child is really a parent's worst nightmare. At least Anne's own parents are rich enough to be able to afford to pay a ransom demand, but is that really such a good idea? The moral dilemmas come thick and fast, and so do the plot twists. This is a pacy, action-packed thriller, brimming with suspense. No wonder it's achieved such success.