Friday, 5 February 2016

Forgotten Book - Lobelia Grove

Lobelia Grove was the second novel published under the name of Anthony Rolls, a follow-up to the successful The Vicar's Experiments. The book appeared in 1932, and my copy, from the Bob Adey collection, is signed by the author and dated September 1932. It's signed in his real name, C.E. Vulliamy, rather than as Rolls. (Bob's copy of the first Rolls book is signed in both names.)

The setting is a fictitious "garden suburb", and the social life of Kipperly  Park is portrayed with a great deal of sly wit. One always feels, with Rolls-Vulliamy that constructing a mystery interested him rather less than exercising his gift for satire,,but I must say I really enjoyed this one. He tackles the theme of the craving for respectability exhibited by so many English people, and he presents us with a number of incisive portraits of local characters, and how they behave when murder disrupts the serenity of their lives.

A case in point is Mr Bertie Quirtle (the author liked to give his characters unlikely names, a habit that I find a trifle irritating). Quirtle is returning home one night when he encounters a rude stranger in a hurry. Almost immediately thereafter,he stumbles across the body of one of his neighbours. Rather than doing something about it, he scuttles off and later tells a series of lies, seemingly out of fear of becoming involved.

There's a pleasingly ironic plot twist towards the end, but the real pleasure of the book comes from Vulliamy's jokes, and his ability to make shrewd points through humour. At the time he was writing, these books must have seemed refreshingly "different", and they still retain that quality. Yes, the influence of Francis Iles can be detected, but unlike Iles, Vulliamy was not someone who had written tightly structured whodunits, and this helps to explain why his novels focus more on people than on plot. He was a novelist who happened to write about crime. All the books of his that I've read are worth seeking out..  .

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Curtain Up by Julius Green

The sub-title of Julius Green's Curtain Up is "Agatha Christie: a life in theatre", and this tells you clearly what the book is all about. Green starts as he means to go on: "This is the story of the most successful female playwright of all time. She also wrote some books." Yes, he's talking about Dame Agatha, the Queen of Crime, and he argues plausibly that "the significance of her contribution to theatre has been largely overlooked by historians."

I've seen several Christie plays over the years, although by no means all of them. I was especially interested to read here a very full account of the genesis of Fiddlers Five, which I went to see when it was on tour in Manchester. It was a birthday treat, and the cast included Colin Bean, who used to play Private Sponge in Dad's Army. The play can't, sadly, be described as a great success, and Christie later refined it into Fiddlers Three. By then, however, she was past her best as both a crime writer and as a playwright..I learned from Green (amongst many other things) that the play was originally called This Mortal Coil, and he reminded me that the tour was led by veteran actor-manager James Grant Anderson.

There is a wealth of detail in this extensively researched book. Again, I found myself especially intrigued by the parts where Green expanded my own knowledge of subjects I find interesting - such as Agatha's involvement with Frank Vosper. I also loved learning more about little-known apprentice works such as Eugenia and Eugenics. My impression is that Green is keener on the theatre than on detective fiction generally, but he makes telling points about the plotting of the plays, as well as discussing various adaptations by the likes of the prolific crime writer Gerald Verner.

One of the first points Green makes about his approach to his subject is a technical one: "As a reader I dislike footnotes and endnotes and find them an annoyance,but as a researcher I find it helpful when writers cite their sources." He explains that his method has been to offer a compromise, with sources mentioned in a website rather than in a book. There are various ways of tackling this dilemma (which is a very real one) and I dealt with it differently in The Golden Age of Murder, because my aims were different, but Green's method seems to me well suited to his material and his concerns. I'm delighted to have a copy of this book in my library, and I'm sure I'll refer to it again and again.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Spectre - film review

Spectre, the latest James Bond film, is the fourth to feature Daniel Craig, and mixes up the familiar ingredients with enough flair to ensure that, although it runs for well over two hours, the action and interest never flag. Once again the director is Sam Mendes, and if he doesn't quite recapture the brilliance of the last Bond movie, Skyfall, which is arguably the best of them all, he comes fairly close.

The film gets off, as you'd expect, to an explosive start, with Craig in pursuit of bad guys at the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City. When he returns to London, it is to find that things are changing in the world of the secret service. Is there any future for the lone agent with a licence to kill in an age when hi-tech global surveillance is the name of the game? Well, we know the answer to that one, but there's great fun to be had along the way to having our suspicions confirmed.

Q - the excellent Ben Whishaw - is pressed into service again, and comes up with some of his best gadgets. I loved the witty moment when Bond, having nicked 009's Aston Martin, found himself playing a Frank Sinatra song from his colleague's playlist in the midst of a breathless chase through the narrow streets of Rome. The jokes are an important part of the Bond movies, and there are some good ones in this film.

About the plot itself, possibly the less said the better: it's not a strong point. But when the confection as a whole is so entertaining, this doesn't matter as much as it would do usually. The theme song by Sam Smith, "Writing's on the Wall" makes much less of an immediate impact than Adele's brilliant theme for Skyfall, but having listened to it several times since, I've warmed to the song. Not quite up to the late, inimitable John Barry, but not at all bad. As for the film itself, it's fun viewing, and that's what a Bond movie should be.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Forgotten Book - Terror at Staups House

Now, this is an obscure one. Hands up, those of you who have read Frank King's Terror at Staups House....not too many of you, I suspect, well-read though readers of this blog definitely are! It's another book, signed by the author (and dated 1927, the year of publication), which I acquired from the collection of the late Bob Adey, and it's a locked room mystery.

I bought it less than a fortnight ago, and it was my major purchase at a book fair in York. I managed to limit myself to buying four books, mainly because quite a few others that I fancied were a long way out of reach financially. This book, in excellent condition but lacking a dustwrapper, was at least affordable.

I say 'lacking a dustwrapper', but it was pointed out to me that the book is very unusual, in that the publishers, Bles, were experimenting at that time with the concept of having front endpapers which reproduced the cover. It's an experiment they didn't persist with, perhaps due to cost, but from a book collecting perspective, it's a very interesting feature. (And it's rather different from the more common, and less pleasing, sight of a dustjacket that has carefully been cut up and pasted over the endpapers; I have a few of those; they can look nice, but the element of vandalism is unappealing.) I'd be glad to hear from anyone who knows more about the Bles experiment, or anything similar.

So is the book itself any good? Well, to begin with, I feared the worst. The victim is one of those loathsome old misers who were so often properly dispatched in Golden Age fiction. There's talk of voodoo, Tula knives, the Aztecs, a curse, and vengeful foreigners, and there's a manservant who speaks in excruciating dialect. But although it's a melodramatic story, it's much better than many of its kind. King wrote with pace and some verve, and although the cast of suspects is small, he keeps one guessing pretty well. And pleasingly, the manservant abandons the dialect after being unmasked as a career criminal. (Obligingly, he continues to serve meals to the other suspects after the death of his unmourned master; talk about the lower orders knowing their place.!) Tolstoy it ain't, but it's good fun.


Forgotten Book - The Case is Altered

The Case is Altered, written by William Plomer and first published in 1932, certainly qualifies as a Forgotten Book, but at the time of its original appearance, it was much admired. Plomer, in his late twenties,had moved from South Africa to London, and this was his third novel. His debut, Turbot Wolfe, was a popular story about inter-racial relationships, and he had become friendly with Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who published and promoted this novel with great enthusiasm.

It's a story about a murder, and was closely based on a real life crime. What is unique about it is that the crime in question occurred, in 1929, in the house in Bayswater where Plomer was living. James Achew murdered his partner, Sybil da Costa, in front of their small child. Achew was insanely jealous (and was ultimately reprieved from execution). He dreaded the thought that Sybil might be seduced by any man - including Plomer who (most authorities seem to agree) was gay. In the book, Achew (who is given the name James Starr) is represented by Paul Fernandez, whose attractive partner runs a boarding house; the lodgers include a young man called Alston who is, in part, based on Plomer.

Yet although this novel concerns a murder, it is first and foremost a study of the changing nature of London life and society, with particular emphasis on changes in the class system and political thinking. I found all this historically fascinating, and even though much of the political stuff is naive (contributing to a surprisingly weak ending) Plomer's liberal attitudes towards racial tensions are noteworthy. He portrays the relationships between occupants of the house in Cambodia Crescent, and people close to them, with a good deal of subtlety, and the gay and lesbian subtexts are also interesting.

In many ways, this book reminded me of the work of Patrick Hamilton - notably Hangover Square. It's not a "mystery", and it's clear that Plomer struggled with the notion of plot, but it's really well written and still highly readable. Oddly, Plomer never developed as a novelist, but he wrote libretti for Benjamin Britten and had a perhaps surprisingly warm relationship with a very different writer for whom he became editor, Ian Fleming. Fleming even dedicated Goldfinger to him. Quite something to have on your CV.  

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Two Faces of January - film review

The Two Faces of January is a novel by Patricia Highsmith that offers one of her most successful presentations of a relationship between two troubled men. I talked about the book a couple of years ago, and wondered at that time if the newly made film would be as enjoyable. The short answer is yes.

Hossein Amini, making his debut as a director, had to decide whether to update the story or set it in, more or less,the time when it was written. He chose the latter course, and I think this was wise. Modernising the story would have entailed major changes, a high risk tactic. Although, inevitably, the story doesn't precisely mirror the book, it is relatively faithful to it.

The settings in Greece and Turkey lend themselves to evocative camera work, and Viggo Mortensen, a fine actor, is very well cast as Chester. I'm a Mortensen fan, but much less familiar with Kirsten Dunst, who plays his youngish wife Colette, and Oscar Isaac, who is Rydal, the young chancer who cottons on to them. Dunst's character struck me as more intelligent than the Colette of the novel, a change that did the story no harm. Isaac is very good from start to finish.

The later stages of the film struck me as more heavily plotted than the equivalent scenes in the novel. Again, this made sense: much as I admire Highsmith, I don't think that plotting was her greatest strength, and sometimes the later parts of her novels don't work as well as the earlier chapters.One thing that can safely be said is that there is a special quality of vividness about her writing which means that it can translate to film very powerfully. This is yet another of the films of her books which make excellent viewing.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Murder at the Manor - and other classic mysteries

I've just received my author copy of Murder at the Manor, another anthology that I've compiled for the British Library. It will be available in early February. Compiling this book has given me the opportunity to bring together another selection of vintage mysteries. I've adopted the same general approach as for Resorting to Murder, Capital Crimes, and Silent Nights. The theme this time is the country house mystery. There are a few (relatively) familiar authors and stories, and a number of less obvious choices, including a little known, but in my view excellent story by Anthony Berkeley.

Over the Christmas break, The Times published a detailed article about the British Library series, after interviewing John Bude's daughter and me, and listed the top ten bestsellers in the series. Even then, a few weeks after its publication, Silent Nights had reached number seven in the list, and the other two anthologies have also sold many more copies than any of the other twenty-odd story collections I've edited. We're very encouraged by this, and several more anthologies are in the works.

The success of the British Library series is being emulated, and sometimes quoted in the publicity material of, other publishers who are, understandably, keen to take part in the current revival of interest in Golden Age fiction. I'm sure there are many people like me who feel that having so many of these old, and previously hard-to-find, books available again at affordable prices, is very good news.

A particular shout-out for Harper Collins, who - even before the BL series took off - have been doing great work in terms of bringing back books like The Floating Admiral and Ask a Policeman. They have more recently been reprinting Francis Durbridge's Paul Temple books, and have launched the very attractively presented Detective Story Club reprints. I hope to cover one of their titles, The Mystery at Stowe by Vernon Loder, before long. Loder is a writer I've heard good things about for years, not least from my friend Nigel Moss, who has written the introduction. Yet I've never come across one of Loder's books, so I was delighted to read it; the book will be on the shelves in the shops in March. Another book in the series, Freeman Wills Crofts' The Ponson Case, with an intro by crime novelist Dolores Gordon-Smith, will also feature here before too long.

Among the estimable smaller presses active in this field are Dean Street Press, whom I've mentioned several times before on this blog. In the coming months, I'll be talking about quite a few of their titles in more detail, The authors they are publishing include Ianthe Jerrold and E.R. Punshon, and I've just received a copy of a book by the highly obscure Robin Forsythe. It's called "Missing or Murdered".

Friday, 22 January 2016

Forgotten Book - Twice Round the Clock

Today I'm featuring another Forgotten Book that came to me from Bob Adey's amazing collection. It's an inscribed copy of Twice Round the Clock, which was published in 1935 by Billie Houston. A striking feature of the front cover of the dust jacket is that it bears not one but two photographs of the author. I must admit I'd never heard of her, but I discovered that Billie was a celebrity in her day, a member of a highly popular music hall act called the Houston Sisters. A bit of research on the internet revealed a performance of theirs on Youtube and this interesting article, which includes the above photo.

This wasn't a ghost-written novel, but one that Billie apparently scribbled away in dressing rooms up and down the country while touring with her sister Renee. She had a long-standing love of the crime story, it seems. And whilst the prose isn't Dickensian, it's not only competent, but rather more engaging than some of the dry stuff that was published at around the same time. This is a readable story, an engaging debut.

It gains something from a storyline that emphasises the rapid passage of time (hinted at by the title.) In a prologue, a body is discovered in a country house, but we then have a long flashback scene in which the tension mounts as it becomes evident that numerous people have good cause to commit a murder. The structure is slightly similar to that of a later book that I much admire, Henry Wade's Lonely Magdalen. The villain of the piece is one of crime fiction's most repellent victims, it has to be said.

This is a lively and unpretentious thriller which I enjoyed reading. It isn't a masterpiece,but it's a good enough first effort to have justified a follow-up. Unfortunately, three years after publication, Houston's husband committed suicide. She gave up life as part of the Houston Sisters - though Renee became quite a well-known actress - and remarried, settling, it would seem, for quiet domesticity. Her obituary in The Times makes no mention of her crime novel, but it's a shame that it's been so completely forgotten.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Edgars

The Golden Age of Murder has been nominated for an Edgar, one of the long-established awards given by the Mystery Writers of America. It's one of five books in the "best critical/biographical" category. Of course, I am delighted. I've been shortlisted for a few awards previously, in my writing and legal careers, and actually managed to win one or two, but of course something as significant as an Edgar nomination comes along rarely if ever in a British writer's life. So the key thing is to savour the moment to the full, which is exactly what I'm doing right now....

I see that, at the Edgar Awards ceremony which is to be held in New York City, that fine writer Walter Mosley is to be acclaimed as a Grand Master. This reminds me that, way back in 1992, when my first novel, All the Lonely People, was one of seven initially shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger for best debut crime novel of the year, the award was won (and deservedly so) by Walter for that terrific book, later filmed, Devil in a Blue Dress.

But here's the thing. I didn't even find out that my book was one of the seven nominated books until months after the event. In those days, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no social media alerting one to such news. The first I heard about it was one day when I was visiting London and I called in at Murder One, the splendid crime bookshop that Maxim Jakubowski used to run in Charing Cross Road. He congratulated me on being shortlisted (Maxim was, and remains, a very well-informed chap, and is nowadays a colleague on the CWA committee), and it came as a complete bolt from the blue. By that time,though, the award ceremony had come and gone. Just shows how things have changed....

Monday, 18 January 2016

Before I Go to Sleep - film review

S.J. Watson's bestselling debut novel Before I Go to Sleep must have been a challenging book to adapt for film. Rowan Joffe took on the job a couple of years ago, and I think he made a good job of it, rather better than one or two reviews I've read suggest. And the key to the success of the film, for me, was the small but superlative cast. It was also very sensible (as it usually is) to keep the running time short - slightly over an hour and a half.

Nicole Kidman is Christine, the woman who keeps waking up to the nightmarish reality that she can't remember anything about her life. Each day, she has to be reminded by Colin Firth that he is Ben, her husband, and that some years back, she suffered a terrible accident which caused her to lose her memory. But it soon emerges that it was no accident. She was attacked by someone in a hotel.

She receives daily calls from a doctor, played by Mark Strong, who says he is trying to help her to recover her memory. But it soon becomes clear that he is attracted to her. What exactly are his motives? Can she trust Ben? And what part in her life was played by a friend called Claire (Anne-Marie Duff)?.

I've seen Nicole Kidman excel in a number of different roles; here, she is quite outstanding. Firth and Strong both have a powerful presence on the screen, and the combination works very well. Even though I'd read the book, I found myself gripped from start to finish. Definitely worth watching..