Wednesday, 20 August 2014

"I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere...."

My enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes dates back to when I was very young and first encountered the great man in the shape of Douglas Wilmer, on TV, and Basil Rathbone, on film. Strangely enough, though, this past twelve months has seen me involved in more Sherlock-related activity than ever before. I'm absolutely delighted by response to The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes,from readers. In addition, I've enjoyed writing an essay about Conan Doyle's short stories, giving an after dinner speech to the Sherlock Holmes Soceity, and starting work on a story about Professor Moriarty for a forthcoming anthology.

I've also written an introduction for a new collection of the 'best' Sherlock stories for Arcturus. It includes a wide selection from the short stories, together with The Hound of the Baskervilles. The book is beautifully presented in a slipcase and will be available later this year. I've just received my copy, and it looks very good on the shelf.

Now, I've been told of a good cause that has a Sherlockian theme. I don't often mention charity events on this blog, but I want to make a special exception today, given that research into brain-related conditions is so very important. I have (and had) too many friends who have suffered from these conditions over the years. And the event really does sound like fun, as this extract from the press release suggests

"Sherlock fever has gripped Yorkshire as a charity’s campaign to break the World Record for the most people dressed as Sherlock Holmes has gone viral.
Sherlock Holmes, one of the most popular consulting detectives of all time, is on the case to help raise money for the Yorkshire Brain Research Centre at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals.
The Guinness World Record attempt promises to host the biggest Sherlock party ever. It takes place on 31st August 2014 in Temple Newsam, Leeds from 12 noon. Entry fee is £15 and every participant will receive a Deerstalker hat, pipe and magnifying glass.
 The event features a big stage featuring comedy, music, dance and theatre. There will be food, fun rides and and a few surprises along the way."

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Brian Innes - R.I.P.

Despite all the pleasures of the St Hilda's Crime and Mystery week-end, there was one sad moment, when the news was broken to me that Brian Innes has died. This happened last month, but somehow I'd missed hearing about it. Brian had a number of claims to fame. Among them was this - he was the only person I knew who once had a number one hit record.

As this obituary explains, Brian was a prominent member of the Temperance Seven, a group I remember very distantly from my childhood. At one time they were often on television, thought their hey-day came immediately before the Beatles changed everything in popular music. Their big hit was "You're Driving Me Crazy", although I'm not quite old enough to remember it topping the charts.

I came to knew Brian because he was a regular at CWA conferences, and entertaining company he was, too. I was startled to read in the obituary that he was 86, because he seemed younger than his years. There was always a twinkle in his eye. He was very loyal to the CWA, and he was diligent at keeping committee members to account. Brian's main literary interest was in the true crime field, and he was for many years the chair of the CWA's Non-Fiction Dagger judging panel. I recall having a very long chat on the phone with him about this only last year..

More than a decade ago, though, he told me of his ambition to write fiction, and I was pleased when he submitted a short story called "Country Blues" for an anthology of rural crime fiction I as editing, Green for Danger. It was a private eye story with a country music elements, and I was glad to include it in the book. The story was part of a series he was working on, and I hoped the publication would encourage him to write more fiction, but I'm not sure this happened.

Very recently, though, I've been working on an anthology of true crime which I'm really rather excited about. I'll post more info about it at a later date. Brian duly submitted an essay to me which I'd like to include if at all possible. With this in mind, if anyone reading this blog can put me in touch with his heirs, I'd be grateful. I suspect it was the last significant piece of writing he produced, and I'm really sorry that he won't be around to see the finished book.

Monday, 18 August 2014

St Hilda's

The 21st annual Crime and Mystery Week-end at St Hilda's College in Oxford was as enjoyable as ever. The theme, topically, was detective fiction and warfare, and this inspired a wide variety of interesting and informative papers from speakers ranging from Val McDermid, and Jake Kerridge of the Daily Telegraph, to Anne Perry and the conference guest of honour, Peter Robinson. My own contribution focused on the 'Golden Age and the Shadows of War', and I was truly gratified by response to news about the forthcoming publication of The Golden Age of Murder. Champagne was kindly provided by a good friend, and consumed with great appreciation, especially on my part!

The after dinner speakers on Friday and Saturday were, respectively, the legendary Colin Dexter (who mentioned, among many other things, his enthusiasm for John Dickson Carr),, and Keith Miles, better known to some readers as Edward Marston, author of the Railway Detective series. At the top table on Friday evening it was rather wonderful to be in the company of the likes of Colin, Anne, Andrew Taylor, Imogen Robertson, and Alan Bradley, a highly successful author whom I've never met before. Alan is Canadian, but after a spell in Malta, he now lives at Peel on the Isle of Man, an entrancing resort in which I once set a short story, 'Sunset City'.

A week-end like this gives you the chance to make new friends, and also to get to know some people better whom you may have met only fleetingly in the past. The setting gives this event a special character and atmosphere, and I encourage anyone who is interested in in-depth discussion of the genre, coupled with a great deal of conviviality, to consider attending in the future. Great credit is due to the tireless organisers, Eileen Roberts and Kate Charles. The talks themselves are chaired by N.J. Cooper (also know as Natasha Cooper and Daphne Wright), and I can only say that I've attended many different kinds of events in various sectors, but rarely encountered any chair as accomplished. It's a challenging role, because a great deal of concentration is required to do it well, but she makes it all look effortless, and her unfailing generosity makes the task of the speakers so much easier. And that's invaluable, because the audience is very knowledgeable, and all the speakers are naturally anxious to make sure that their talks live up to the standards expected.

I was delighted to share the platform with Ruth Dudley Edwards, who read and commented most helpfully on an early draft of The Golden Age of Murder, and her talk about Northern Ireland and terrorism was spell-binding. On the Sunday morning, Ruth and I went punting with Andrew Taylor (whose brand new book I'm longing to read after hearing him speak about it). Now, I've not been in a punt since I was a student a long, long time ago, but thanks to Andrew's expert steering with the punt pole we managed to avoid the calamity of capsizing that would definitely have ensued had I been left to my own devices. A fun memory of a great week-end.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Forgotten Book - Corpse in Cold Storage

Before I get stuck into today's Golden Oldie, may I say how gratified I am by the reaction to news of the forthcoming publication of The Golden Age of Murder? I'm sure those who have read my articles and blog posts about the Golden Age will realise that writing the book has been a labour of love. Even late last night, I was tinkering with some of the notes and the bibliography (to be honest, 'tinkering' is a euphemism for 'expanding'...). One of the beauties of today's world of global communication is that people have made me aware that the book is already being marketed via Amazon here and in the US, and there have even been some pre-orders. Wow, talk about quick off the mark!

One of the reasons why I was keen for the news to come out now, even though the official publication date for both the UK edition and the US edition is next May is that this week-end, I'm giving a talk about the Golden Age and the Shadows of War at the St Hilda's Crime and Mystery Conference, and I really didn't feel I could resist keeping the news to myself any longer. There's a strong contingent of Golden Age fans at St Hilda's, and I've been looking forward to this event for months.

Now, back to today's Forgotten Book. Corpse in Cold Storage, written by Milward Kennedy, and published in 1934, is my choice. It's certainly forgotten - I can't recall reading any discussion of it anywhere. It's probably fair to say that Kennedy's fan club is a pretty small and exclusive group. Possibly I'm the only current member, though I hope not. His books often frustrate me, because they frequenly fail to live up to their potential, but they usually offer something "different" and rather inventive that is uncommon and appealing.

Corpse in Cold Storage is a case in point. The title comes from a phrase that Kennedy had used in an earlier novel, and which (I guess) gave him a starting point for this story. The corpse belongs to an unpleasant man called Charleson, and it is found ice cream van. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this points to a "time of death" mystery that is quite cleverly concocted. The setting, in a small and run-down south coast resort delightfully called Heartsease, is also very nicely done. The victim, and almost all of the suspects are not, however, very interesting. What's unusual about this book is the detective duo who take an interest in the case.

Kennedy had previously tried and abandoned a series police detective (by the name of Cornford) after only two books. This story sees the return of Sir George Bull and his wife Mary after they first appeared in Bull's Eye, a book which left me underwhelmed. Corpse in Cold Storage is better, and shows the Bulls in good form. Sir George is a hard-drinking conman, and he wants to find out who killed Charleson simply in order to blackmail the killer. His seductive wife aids and abets him, whilst trying to persuade him to moderate his intake of alcohol, and she proves a much better detective. Together they make an entertainingly different pair of sleuths. There have been villainous detectives before and since the Bulls, but nobody quite like them.

I enjoyed the story a good deal, though some of the detail about alibis, whilst in the Golden Age tradition, left me as cold as Charleson's corpse. It's a shame that Kennedy abandoned the Bulls after this book. He strikes me as a restless writer, constantly trying something different, and never quite writing a masterpiece. One final point: my American edition describes him as "President of the Detection Society of England". He was never the Detection Club's President, though, and I bet he got into trouble over that with the Club's founder, Anthony Berkeley, who was perhaps the prickliest of all Golden Age writers. There will be more about both Kennedy and Berkeley in The Golden Age of Murder.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Breaking News....The Golden Age of Murder

I'm probably as excited about this post as about any of the others (nearly 2000!) that I can remember adding to this blog. So excited, in fact, that I'll let the press release do the talking for me - for the time being, anyway...

"In a world rights deal HarperCollins has acquired from James Wills of Watson, Little Ltd the publishing rights to The Golden Age of Murder, a real-life detective story investigating how Agatha Christie and her colleagues in the secretive Detection Club transformed crime fiction, writing books that cast new light on unsolved murders whilst hiding clues to their own darkest secrets.

The book is written by the award-winning crime-writer Martin Edwards, author of 17 crime novels and 8 non-fiction books. Edwards is Archivist for both the Detection Club and the Crime Writers’ Association, and is a renowned expert on Golden Age detective fiction.

David Brawn, Publisher of Estates at HarperCollins, commented: ‘This ground-breaking study of detective fiction from between the wars captures how the social and political turbulence of the times impacted on authors and the appetites of their readers. Martin’s revelations about many of these colourful and turbulent writers, whose risky private lives inspired their more daring novels, provide a whole new insight into the generation of authors who created the prototypes for books we all still love today.’

Martin Edwards said: ‘The Golden Age of Murder seeks to overturn familiar stereotypes, and look at classic detective fiction in a fresh way. The years of research felt just like detective work, as I set out to solve the mysteries surrounding the Detection Club and its members. The best novels of the Golden Age are among the most popular and influential entertainments ever written, and the people who wrote them were even more fascinating. As interest in their fiction reaches new heights, this is the perfect time to reveal their untold stories.’

The Golden Age of Murder: Solving the Mysteries of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story will be published in hardback in May 2015."

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Mysteries Unlocked

This year, I've been pleased to contribute essays to three widely diverging books, and each of them was a different writing and publishing experience. The first essay was a study of the short fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, for Morphologies. Another is a discussion of Gilbert Adair and detective fiction for a forthcoming Adair festschrift. And the third is also a contribution to a festschrift, this time Mysteries Unlocked, which is sub-titled Essays in Honour of Douglas G. Greene.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Doug and I go back quite a long way. So long, in fact, that I can't quite recall when and where we first met. I've been a long-time subscriber to the wonderful books he publishes under the Crippen & Landru imprint, and edited one of them, a collection of Ellis Peters' "lost classics." He has helped me a great deal with my researches into the Golden Age, with that generosity that seems to me to typify the overwhelming majority of people in the crime fiction community. He is the author of a wonderful biography of John Dickson Carr, which I strongly recommend, as well as editor of a number of extremely interesting short story collections. In person he's very good company, and we've dined together a couple of times this year, most recently at Malice Domestic. So I'm very glad that Curtis Evans proposed celebrating Doug's 70th birthday with a book that includes essays, almost all of them brand new, about different aspects of crime fiction. The book is introduced by Steve Steinbock, who was at that same rather memorable dinner in Bethesda last May. Yep, it's a small world.

My contribution discusses Anthony Berkeley's short stories, and I'm currently enjoying reading the others, ranging from a lovely piece by Peter Lovesey about Eric the Skull of the Detection Club to a fascinating article by Mauro Boncampagni about the Q. Patrick/Jonathan Stagge/Patrick Quentin writing collective. I've never met Mauro, but I have the pleasure of corresponding with him, and I'm indebted not just to him but also to his wife, who has been translating The Coffin Trail into Italian - as a result, Mondadori will be publishing the first Lake District Mystery later this year, I'm thrilled to say.

Barry Pike and Julia Jones, leading lights of the Margery Allingham Society, are the authors of a pair of excellent studies. Barry's deals with Allingham's commercial fiction and Julia's tackles The China Governess. Julia's article is both interesting and wise; she explains how her view of the book has changed over the years, and I think this typifies the best scholarship. I admire critics who are willing to revisit their opinions, Both Dorothy L. Sayers and Julian Symons were admirable in this regard; it seems to me to be a sign of strength. Julia casts fascinating new light on the novel. To find out how she does this, you'll have to read the book!

John Curran, supremely knowledgeable about Agatha Christie, tackles her attempts at "locked room mysteries" with his customary authority. Mike Ashley (whom I've never met, but for whose anthologies I've written numerous stories) discusses Max Rittenberg. I'd never heard of Rittenberg, but Mike makes me want to read him. Roger Ellis writes interestingly about J.S. Fletcher, and Steve Steinbock about one of Carr's rivals in the impossible crime field, the under-rated Hake Talbot.

And there is more, much more. A wealth of other material of high quality, in fact, contributed by commentators including Jon L. Breen and Marv Lachman (against whom I once competed in a game of Mastermind, at the Nottingham Bouchercon) who combine to make this a truly wide-ranging reference book. I love devouring essay collections about the genre, and this is one of the best to have appeared in years. Editor Evans, himself the author of two of the essays, is to be congratulated on having come up with a great idea, and then on having done the spadework of turning it into a reality.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Closed Circuit - film review

Conspiracy thrillers, rather like conspiracy theories themselves, range from the frighteningly plausible to the plain silly. Closed Circuit is a 2013 conspiracy thriller movie which has not, as far as I can see, pleased too many critics. But I think the panning it's received in some quarters is far too harsh. I found it very watchable. And not just because the story featured a solicitor called Devlin and a heroic lawyer called Martin!

The cast is very good, and several of its members are in excellent form. Rebecca Hall, who seldom seems to put a foot wrong, is convincing as a committed barrister, and Kenneth Cranham exudes a subdued version of his characteristic menace in his role as a judge. Ciaran Hinds plays the dodgy Devlin, Jim Broadbent excels as the slimy attorney general, and although I don't think Eric Bana is in quite the same league, he's not at all bad as the arrogant barrister Martin who grows as a character as he stumbles across evidence of dirty tricks at the heart of the establishment.

The film begins with a bang, as an explosion rips apart Borough Market, but the story begins in earnest some months later, with the trial of the alleged ringleader of the shadowy group of terrorists who were responsible. Because some of the evidence has national security implications, the rules require a defence barrister who handles the case in open court, and a special defence counsel who deals with the secret information. Bana takes over the former role when his predecessor commits suicide, and the first of many complications is that he is the former lover of the special counsel, played by Hall.

I think some of the criticism of the film stems from disappointment about the relatively superficial nature of the film's focus on the surveillance state. As a critique of government and the security services, it's so-so. But judged as a thriller, I think it works well. The pace is good throughout, the twists pleasing, and the storyline reasonably distinctive. Of course, you have to suspend your disbelief, but I was happy to do just that. An under-rated film, which offers well-made entertainment.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Forgotten Book - He Could Not Have Slipped

He Could Not Have Slipped, my Forgotten Book for today by Francis Beeding, has one of those titles that you simply don't come across these days.It's an odd one, and cunningly chosen. At first, the reader thinks its meaning is obvious. But there is more to the title than meets the eye, and although this book is not quite at the same level of excellence as classics like Death Walks in Eastrepps, and The Norwich Victims, it is still very readable and displays the qualities of plotting and sound, thoughtful writing that made Beeding's name notable in the Thirties.

The Beeding name concealed the identities of two friends who worked together for the League of Nations, and their inside knowledge of the League's workings (and, they make very clear, shortcomings) is put to very good use in this story. They also combine aspects of the thriller with a neat whodunit mystery, and although I'm less familiar with their thrillers, since my Golden Age preference is for whodunits, this book tempts me to give more of them a try.

The Geneva setting is conveyed with conviction, and Beeding manages to introduce into a story of international crime Inspector George Martin, who appeared in The Norwich Victims and No Fury, another story I enjoyed. There is also a neat spin on the idea of the altruistic crime, much canvassed by writers of the Golden Age. A likeable, well-intentioned man who has devoted his life to looking after refugees become frustrated by the League's weakness. This leads him into a criminal conspiracy, and the misadventures of a co-conspirator who happens to be a dodgy lawyer (yes, they do exist) result in murder. But there is more to this story than at first meets the eye.

I really like the way Beeding made a number of sharp political points without becoming heavy-handed or didactic. This book dates from 1939,and it seems clear to me that the co-authors were deeply concerned about the League's weakness in the face of tyranny. But their main concern, quite properly in a book of this kind, was to entertain, and they succeeded. Yes, the central trick is not terribly difficult to fathom out, but it is handled with elegant economy. All in all, a little-known title that deserves to be resurrected.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Free Sherlock

For several years, Leslie S. Klinger's gorgeously produced three volumes of annotated Sherlock Holmes stories have occupied a prominent place in my library. They are wonderful books, the work of someone who loves Holmes, and knows the great detective's world inside out. Recently I became aware that Leslie is not only a fellow devotee of Sherlock, but also a fellow lawyer. And he has performed a great service to detective fiction fans, which has attracted heavy coverage both in the US and now on the BBC.

I recommend detective story fans, even those who have no time for the law, to read the court judgment to which the BBC story links. It's more readable than you may expect! The court launches an extraordinarily powerful and scathing attack on the case put on behalf of the Conan Doyle estate. Conversely, Les Klinger's courageous stance is lauded, and in my opinion rightly so. In following this litigation, I've become aware of his excellent Free Sherlock site, which I strongly recommend.

It's clear to me that Les Klinger is highly and properly respectful of the rights of authors, certainly including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and indeed their heirs. Me too - in fact, I very much enjoy meeting the families of writers of the past, and I'd love to chat to members of Conan Doyle's remarkable family. I'm sure they are proud of their heritage and would wish to be seen to be doing the right thing. Copyright is hugely important - creative people deserve to be rewarded for what they have created - although applying the law in practice is complicated and confusing, even if you have legal knowledge.

But there has to be balance, common sense and a degree of fairness and decency in all this. The rights of today's authors are also very important, and the kind of tactics attacked by the court are alarming. As for the claim in a press release that the ruling "reduces the incentive for authors to create great literature by cutting short the value of copyrights protecting two of the world’s great characters",.  words fail me. Sir Arthur, a doughty campaigner against injustice, must be turning in his grave. One can only hope - without being confident - that the message of this judgment is heeded by everyone. I also hope that the power of social media - I heard Jimmy Wales of Wikpedia discussing it very interestingly on the radio yesterday - operates so as to deter inappropriate behaviour in the future.

I have a twofold interest in all this. First, as a lifelong Sherlock fan, I don't want the world to be denied new Sherlock Holmes stories for no good reason. Of course, some of those stories won't be up to much, but it's for readers to decide what is worth reading, and they shouldn't be prevented from making up their own minds Nor should the authors of those stories be subjected to unfair pressure or inappropriate financial demands. Second, my own book of new(ish) stories, plus a few essays, about Sherlock is now to be found on Amazon again. I'm rather proud of The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and of the enthusiasm with which  Sherlockians have responded to it. Thanks to Les Klinger's selfless campaigning, I am glad that readers who want to take a look at what I've done are able to do so.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Top Ten Obscure Golden Age novels that deserve to be better known

Following on from last week's post, here's an admittedly idiosyncratic list of obscure Golden Age novels that are fairly hard to find (at the moment) but which in my opinion deserve to be more widely known. One thing that most of them have in common is that they are unorthodox - the books by Connington and Bowers are the only really conventional ones of the type people associate with the Golden Age. I suppose I'm making the point that the Golden Age was more varied than many people believe...

10. Death Has a Past by Anita Boutell. This variant of the "whowasdunin" is set in England but written by a very talented American. What a shame her career was so short.

9. Nightmare by Lynn Brock. An odd book, quite different from his convoluted mysteries starring Colonal Gore, and an ambitious study in psychology. A downbest ending is a flaw, but it's a very interesting book.

8. Poison in the Parish by Milward Kennedy. Kennedy was influenced by Anthony Berkeley, and was almost equally innovative, although not with the same degree of success. This is a fascinating and original spin on the village mystery which deserves to be much better known.

7. No Walls of Jasper by Joanna Cannan. This is a very impressive piece of work, so good that I felt quite distraught when I read the same author's more orthodox novel The Body in the Beck, and found it tedious. But at her best, she really could write. This book is somewhat in the Francis Iles vein, but quite distinctive. It just pushed out of the list Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith, which I also recommend.

6. The Divison Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson. This was the solo detective effort of "Red Ellen", the left wing Labour MP who was a prime mover in the Jarrow Crusade. The House of Commons setting is very well evoked, and the book is free of didacticism. The plot is so-so, but never mind, the story is very readable.

5. The Sweepstake Murder by J.J. Connington. This is a really clever and enthralling story, a fresh take on the "who will be next?" theme that makes And Then There Were None so irresistible.

4. The Grindle Nightmare by Q.Patrick. A very clever mystery with a great US setting and an astonishingly dark storyline. An unforgettable book. I'm very much indebted to John Norris for supplying me with a copy.

3. Middle-Class Murder by Bruce Hamilton. Brother of the better known Patrick, Bruce wrote a few extremely interesting novels. This is very much in the Francis Iles tradition, and is really well done.

2. As for the Woman by Francis Iles. This book was a commercial failure, and marked the end of the novel-writing career of Anthony Berkeley, aka Francis Iles. Hardly anyone seems to like it. So why do I rate it? Because it's an intriguing and unusual novel, which repays careful study. More on this topic in the future.

1. A Deed Without a Name by Dorothy Bowers. My choice of this as number one is, I readily admit, partly influenced by sentiment, but it would be a grim world if there were no place for a bit of sentiment every now and then. It's a nicely clued whodunit of real merit, by a writer of genuine ability and it evokes the "phoney war" nicely. Yes, it is not perfect, but I think it's utterly heartbreaking that Bowers died of TB months after being invited to join the Detection Club and at a time when she hoped her life was changing for the better. Had she lived, I'm confident she would have become a major star. And the good news is, this book is the easiest to find of those on this list. It was reprinted by the splendid Rue Morgue Press a few years ago.