Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Penny Gold - 1973 film review

Penny Gold, a British crime film first released in 1973, has a number of things going for it, in particular a very good cast. It's led by James Booth, best known for his role in Zulu, but really a compelling and rather sardonic actor whom I enjoy watching. And then there is Francesca Annis, who has long been one of my favourite actors. A good supporting cast includes Nicky Henson, Joss Ackland (so good in White Mischief) and - in a minor part, before she became well-known - Penelope Keith, playing a model. Una Stubbs, Sue Lloyd, and John Savident also appear.

The film opens with the murder of a young woman,and before long the cops, in the person of Booth and Henson are on the scene. One striking feature of their handling of the investigation is the occasionally aggressive approach of Booth in particular - this was, of course, the era of The Sweeney. It must have seemed very modern at the time, but is rather disturbing now.

The storyline is quite complicated. It involves identical twins (yes, that old stand-by!), a rare postage stamp, and more than one murder. Although they sometimes take a predictable course, I find stories about twins rather interesting. I've never written one myself, but maybe one of these days. Here the presence of twins in the story is - foreseeably - significant.

The screenplay was written by David Osborn and Liz Charles-Williams, both of whom had a number of crime scripts to their credit. But I'm afraid that the screenplay is what lets the film down. The use of flashbacks is clunky, and so are some of the plot devices, along with too much of the dialogue. There is a good idea lurking here, but on the whole, Penny Gold doesn't make the most of its talented cast...

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Launch

I very much enjoyed the launch of Taking Detective Stories Seriously last Wednesday evening. The Dorothy L. Sayers Society did a very good job of organising the event, and Hatchards in Piccadilly was an excellent venue. The turn-out was excellent, especially since there was another crime book launch nearby that same night. And I admit to being chuffed when one of the Hatchards folk recommended me to a book about the Sayers era - which proved to be The Golden Age of Murder...

A book of reviews that were written more than 80 years ago is never going to disturb Paula Hawkins and all the celebrity chefs on the bestseller lists, but this is a project that has been dear to my heart for years, and it's so good to see it come to fruition. And there was a "feelgood" atmosphere at the launch, which was gratifying.

Other writers sometimes ask me about whether it is worthwhile to hold a book launch. I often regale them with an anecdote from my early days as a published novelist. At that time, I was published by Transworld in paperback, and one day I travelled to London to have lunch with my editor to celebrate the appearance of my second book, Suspicious Minds.

But my editor was unwell, and in her place was her boss, a very pleasant guy called Tony Mott. In my enthusiastic way, I asked him what advice he would give to writers hoping to improve their sales. He simply said, "Just remember that book launches don't sell books. They may be fun, but in the overall scheme of things, they don't make much difference."

He was a smart guy, and I'm sure he was right. The real question, though, is whether a launch can be arranged which is a truly enjoyable event. If it's possible, as with Taking Detective Stories Seriously, then it's well worth doing. I've launched a couple of books at Gladstone's Library, for instance, and found that was a delightful experience. But as Tony Mott said, when it comes to marketing a book, a launch is not an end in itself. It's merly the beginning.,


Friday, 26 May 2017

Forgotten Book - High Seas Murder

Years ago, I came across a brief mention in a reference book of Peter Drax as one of those writers who followed in the footsteps of Francis Iles, Bruce Hamilton, and C.E. Vulliamy as an author of realistic, ironic crime novels. Intrigued, I strove to find Drax's books, but they were hard to find. Eventually I was pleased to come across one, but they have remained elusive. Until now, that is. Dean Street Press have just reissued the six books that Drax published during his short life, and Rupert Heath of DSP recommended me to have a look at High Seas Murder, which I'd not encountered before.

Rupert was right - it's a really good book. It was first published in 1939, and was the last novel Drax (whose real name was Eric Elrington Addis - I can see why he opted for a pen-name) produced in his lifetime. His crime writing career began in 1936, so he flourished only briefly. A senior naval officer, he was killed in a German air raid on Alexandria in 1941. After his death, a seventh book was completed by his novelist wife Hazel.

Drax spent much of his adult life as a sailor, though he retired from the Royal Navy in 1929, and practised as a barrister until the war broke out. His knowledge of the sea informs this book, and the authentic feel of the story adds to its quality. But what I find very interesting is the fact that the story focuses almost exclusively on working class people in the fishing port of Gilsboro. The lawyers and the cops play only a minor role.

Although (rather oddly) he is not the first character to whom we are introduced, the central protagonist is Carl Swanson, captain of a local fishing ship. His personality is key to the story - and it's a sign of Drax's skill that the final paragraph contains a clever twist that casts fresh light on Carl's psychological profile. There's a doom-laden feel to the story that today would undoubtedly be described as "noir". The writing is crisp and gripping, and Gilsboro is well-evoked: Curtis Evans' informative introduction doesn't suggest any real life model for the town, and though I have two or three candidates in mind, it may be an amalgam of several towns Drax knew. This is an enjoyable example of the ironic Thirties crime novel, different from Iles', Hull's, and Vulliamy's work yet certainly worthy of being associated with it.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Dead Man's Evidence - film review

Dead Man's Evidence is a short film from 1962 starring Conrad Phillips, who was a very familiar screen presence in those days. The screenplay was written by Arthur La Bern, an interesting character whose most famous novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, was filmed by Hitchcock as Frenzy. La Bern was a pretty good storyteller who was also a journalist specialising in true crime.

And this is a story which, I suspect, was sparked by a real life mystery, even though I've not managed to find any discussion of the film which supports my theory. But in 1956, the mysterious disappearance of a frogman called Commander "Buster" Crabb made headline news. The puzzle has never been solved, though according to some theories Crabb was a spy who became a double agent. My guess is that the case inspired La Bern, even though his story moves in a fresh direction after the body of a diver with connections to the intelligence services is washed up on an Irish beach.

Conrad Phillips plays David Baxter, an intelligence officer who is asked to look into the death of the diver. Could the body belong to a friend of Baxter's, who was suspected of being a double agent? The only clue is a ring that appeared on the dead man's finger, but which quickly vanished. Can someone be trying to conceal the identity of the deceased, and if so, why? Baxter pretends to be an insurance investigator, but a local journalist, a woman photographer and her mysterious boyfriend all become curious about his activities.

The story zips along rather nicely, and there's a decent plot twist. The Irish setting is also well done. Phillips was a charismatic actor, even though he never became a really major star. He befriends a charming and seemingly naive young woman, a limited role but well played by Jane Griffiths; I'd never heard of her, but it seems that she died all too young. Overall, this unpretentious film is definitely worth watching. .

Don't Talk to Strange Men - 1962 film review

Of all the British black and white B movies that Talking Pictures has screened in recent months, Don't Talk to Strange Men is one of the most gripping. The film first hit the screens in 1962, and it' not much more than an hour long. It doesn't boast a starry cast, and I'd never heard of the scriptwriter, Gwen Cherrell. But in terms of building tension, it puts many a big budge movie to shame

One of the features of the script is its economy. In the first scene, we see a girl being picked up on a lonely road. Soon a body is found by a group of children. We never learn more about the victim,and indeed we learn next to nothing about the murderer - not even what he looks like. The real question is: where will he strike next?

Two sisters play central parts in the story. They come from a "nice" middle class family, and they chafe against the restrictions imposed by their kindly but relatively old parents. Christina Gregg plays the dreamy romantic Samantha, who runs into danger when she answers a phone ringing in a telephone kiosk. Her younger sister, played by Janina Faye, also gets enmeshed in Samantha's web of deceit with potentially disastrous results.

Christina Gregg was 22 when the film was made, though she played a teenager. She does very well in the role, but appears to have married in the year the film was made,and given up acting; quite a loss. The best known faces in the supporting cast belong to Conrad Phillips, for once not playing a villain, and Dandy Nicholls, later to find fame as Alf Garnett's wife. This taut little film gives as clear a picture of conventional British society just before the Beatles era than you'll find in many a history book.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh - review

I am a fan of psychological suspense, and in recent years I've read plenty of examples of the currently fashionable "domestic suspense" novel. Gone Girl, so well-written, is outstanding among them, but having just read Clare Mackintosh's best-selling debut I Let You Go, I'm inclined to think that, in terms of storytelling power, it's at least as good.

Books of this kind tend to have certain common features, including one or more jaw-dropping plot twists. The snag is that sometimes the twists aren't really credible. No such problem with I Let You Go, where the first major plot twist, after a measured but interesting build-up of suspense, comes half-way through the book. When this particular structural device works well, as it did in Gone Girl, and many years ago in Ira Levin's brilliant A Kiss Before Dying, it can be highly effective. So it is here.

The story begins with a hit-and-run car accident, which kills a five year old boy called Jacob. The police investigation fails to yield quick results, and we follow a developing relationship between two of the cops, as well as the enigmatic behaviour of grieving mother Jenna, who describes the way in which she begins a new life in south Wales. Then comes the first major twist in the story, and we hear for the first time from another voice.

I don't want to say too much more, because to do so might spoil some of the pleasure afforded by this novel. It's a clever story, and I admire clever writing, but there's something else to be said (cryptically, to avoid spoilers!) This novel, written by a former police officer, gives us a shocking insight into a particular aspect of human behaviour that I found utterly compelling. It's all the more powerful because it seems highly authentic. Was I impressed? You bet.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Crimefest and the CWA Short Story Dagger


I've returned from Crimefest in Bristol to a ton of work, but in high spirits after a lovely week-end. Thanks as ever go to Adrian, Myles and Donna, the organisers, along with their team of helpers. There were many highlights, but one that i didn't expect was to find that I was longlisted for the CWA Short Dagger, for my story "Murder and its Motives", which appears in the Detection Club anthology I edited last year, Motives for Murder (Sphere). What's more, three other stories from the book made the longlist, much to my delight

In case you're wondering, as Chair of the CWA, I keep a distance from the Daggers process, which is in the hands of a large number of capable and independent judges and Dagger Liaison Officer Mike Stotter. The independence of the Daggers judging process is part of the reason why the awards are held in such high esteem around the world. One publisher expressed dismay to me that a particular novel by a talented author hadn't made one of the longlists. But whilst I can always empathise with disappointment, publishers simply can't influence the judges, and that's the way it should be. We may not always share the judges' taste, but such is life.

The convention kicked off for me, as usual, with the Authors Remembered session. I moderated a panel comprising Sarah Ward, John Lawton, Andrew Wilson and Jane Corry, and they did a great job of interesting the audience in a range of writers from Patricia Highsmith to Elizabeth Daly. There was time for a quick bite to eat before the traditional pub quiz, run by the admirable Peter Guttridge (photo above). My team managed to win, and we had a very convivial time of it.
The Dagger announcements took place on Friday, and was followed by dinner with Thalia Procter of Little, Brown, publisher of Motives for Murder. My fellow guests included Peter Lovesey and the incomparable Ali Karim, whose company I always enjoy. Thanks also to Ali for his photography and video work. Saturday was a busy day. I interviewed Peter Lovesey, one of the guests of honour, and then took part in a panel moderated (extremely well) by Kevin Wignall. Then came an enjoyable drinks reception and the banquet. Ali videoed the interview with Peter and the film will shortly be available on the shotsmag website.

On Sunday, I moderated another panel, this time on the short story. Given that my panellists were Len Tyler, Janet Laurence, Peter Lovesey and Ann Cleeves, it was a great pleasure and a great way to end  a fantastic few days.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Allied - 2016 film review

Allied, first screened last year, is one of the best new films I've watched in recent months. It's a wartime thriller which stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cottillard as a couple who are pitched together in the fight against Hitler. They meet in Morocco,where Pitt, playing a Canadian spy,called Max and Cotillard, playing a French resistance fighter called Marianne, pose as a married couple who risk their lives conspiring together in an assassination plot.

The killing of a senior Nazi goes according to plan, and by this time the pair have fallen for each other, turning their loving charade into reality. They go to England, marry, and Marianne gives birth to a child. Meanwhile Max's work in intelligence goes on. One day, however, he receives terrible news. Marianne is suspected of being a German spy.

Can this possibly be true? Can Max really trust the woman he loves? The moral dilemma is nicely presented, and the tension continues to mount. I thought the screenplay was very crisply written. When I investigated, it turned out that the writer, Steven Knight, was also a co-creator of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He's obviously keen on games of cat and mouse, and Allied is a very good thriller indeed.

Both the stars give strong performances, and rhey are well supported by a cast that includes the versatile Anton Lesser. Robert Zemeckis, a gifted director, does a good job with the material and there's a soundtrack by Alan Silvestri. Suffice to say that I found the film gripping from start to finish. Not all the critics loved Allied, but I did.

Monday, 15 May 2017

HIgh Tide

High Tide was a novel published by P.M. Hubbard in 1971. Almost a decade later, the story was adapted for the Armchair Thriller television series in four episodes, and I recently watched, the complete mystery on Talking Pictures. Benefiting from a strong cast, it's stood the test of time pretty well, even if by modern standards the background music seems very intrusive.

Hubbard is a writer who has been recommended to me by several good judges, but I've not read much of his work. In my shallow youth, I was deterred partly because he has a very low-key style, and wasn't especially interested in complex plotting, and partly because his main interests, such as small boat sailing, didn't coincide with mine. But I've come to appreciate his qualities more, and I intend to read him more extensively.

High Tide is an atmospheric thriller rather than a complex puzzle, but it does feature a neat variation on the "dying message clue". Curtis (Ian McShane, at his best in this role) has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter. He was responsible for the death of a man called Maxwell, whose mysterious final words prompt a rather menacing chap (played by Terence Rigby) to pursue him. Curtis figures out the meaning of the message,and befriends a pretty but mysterious young woman as he tries to find out what Maxwell was up to.

His quest - undertaken by boat, in characteristic Hubbard fashion - leads him to a house occupied by an ill-matched couple, played by John Bird and the glamorous Kika Markham, who seem to have the clue to the mystery. The sequence in which Rigby's character gets his come-uppance is rather memorable. I enjoyed seeing this, and it's helped to strengthen my interest in Hubbard..

Friday, 12 May 2017

Forgotten Book - No Murder

I've been looking for a copy of H.C. Bailey's No Murder (1942) for a long time. My interest in this book dates back to the time when I read a letter in that great magazine CADS, in which John Jeffries claimed that it's the best detective novel ever written. The quest was given further impetus nine years ago, when Barry Pike, a very good judge, discussed the novel in CADS, and concluded that, if not superior to the greatest Golden Age books, this outing for Reggie Fortune was right up there alongside And Then There Were None, etc.

Barry's short but incisive essay pointed out that the book "is densely packed, with many strands to the narrative, including three violent deaths and three attempts to murder which Bailey handles "with great panache, leading the reader steadily up the garden. He demonstrates continually...the ability to tell one story while appearing to tell another". I agree that's a very significant gift for any detective novelist, and I also agree with him that Agatha Christie was the supreme exponent of this technique.

Barry adds: ""The particular cleverness of No Murder lies in its continuous misdirection, maintained with great skill to the end." The book's American title was The Apprehensive Dog, and as Barry rightly says, "the significance of the dog's activities emerges only in the last few lines of the text." The snag is that this is a rare book, much harder to find than all the other classics to which Barry compares it. So why is it that such a gem has been hidden from view for so long?

Now that I've read No Murder, I think I can guess the answer. The fact that it appeared during the war probably didn't help, but really the density which Barry mentions is reflected in the prose style, and this means that it's nothing like as smooth and slick as the best of Christie. Characters tend not to see things, for instance, they "descry" them. What is more, although the story is intricate and unusual, I didn't find it exciting. This is despite the fact that Bailey was, at his best, a genuinely powerful writer. But his techniques work best in short stories. One of the problems here is that the finger of suspicion points at too few people, and this frustrated me. There's also something anti-climactic about the story, a problem reflected by the title. That said, I was intrigued by the book and I'm glad I've read it. It's certainly original, and I do prize originality. But do I regard it as a masterpiece? I'm afraid not.