Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Lookout - film review

When I sat down to watch The Lookout, a 2007 movie written and directed by Scott Frank, but of which I knew little or nothing, my expectations weren't especially high. It turned out to be one of those very enjoyable experiences, when one stumbles upon something quite excellent, rather by chance. It's a good thriller,but it also makes some good points about the way the world treats people with disabilities.

Chris (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is young, rich and high-achieving man driving a car with three friends one night when, while showing off, he is involved in a terrible accident. Two passengers die, his girlfirend loses her leg,and he suffers brain damage. Four years later, he is working as a janitor in a bank, trying to cope with severe memory problems. His family is kind, but struggles to deal with him on his own terms, and he lives with a blind man, Lew, played by the ever-dependable Jeff Bridges.

Another young man, Gary (the English actor Matthew Goode), befriends him, and introduces him to the affectionate ex-pole dancer Luvlee (Isla Fisher, an Austrlian - yes, it's a cosmopolitan cast for a film set in a small American town, though actually filmed in Canada). Unfortunately, Gary's motives are base - he and his chums are planning to rob Chris's bank, and they need his help. The film is very good indeed on the subtle ways in which able-bodied people can mistreat those with disabilities. This is a subject which has interested me for years, and I've never seen a crime film deal with it better than this one.

The Lookout is not a formulaic movie, and you never quite know what will happen next. Suffice to say that I found the story satisfying, and very well written. The acting is absolutely excellent, and I'm surprised this film isn't better known. I really can recommend it, and there are one or two scenes that will linger in my memory for a long time to come.

Finally, I'm about to set off on my travels again. The last six months have involved a lot of activity on The Golden Age of Murder, The Dungeon House, and anthologies and introductions for the British Library Crime Classics series, and now I'm going to get away for it all for a while and think out the storyline of my next novel. There will be regular scheduled blog posts on a variety of subjects as usual, but internet access will be patchy, so I may be slow at times in responding to comments. But please do keep them coming...And one thing I'll miss whilst I'm away is an episode of Mastermind in which the Harry Devlin novels are a special subject. Fame at last! It's nice to think that Harry may just gain a new lease of life, and some new readers, as a result. I'm fond of the old chap, and enjoy writing up his cases enormously.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Arthur & George - ITV review

Arthur & George began on ITV this evening. It's a three-part series, with a lot going for it. The screenplay, by Ed Whitmore, is based on a novel by the estimable Julian Barnes which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize a decade ago. And the book is about a true (and very well known) story, the investigation by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less, into a shocking miscarriage of justice.

I was surprised, I must admit, when I found that Martin Clunes was cast as Conan Doyle. Now I've enjoyed Clunes' work over the years, but he didn't seem quite right. Not because he isn't Scottish, but because I've always felt that there was a darkness in Conan Doyle's character (think of some of his macabre stories like "The Case of Lady Sannox") that isn't too evident in Clunes. Over the hour, though, I did warm to his portrayal, which focused on Conan Doyle's vulnerability and instinctive decency (qualities Clunes is very good at conveying) as well as his determination.

I wonder how many viewers realised that "Willie", Conan Doyle's brother-in-law, who appears briefly, was E.W. Hornung, who created a famous crime fiction protagonist of his own , A.J. Raffles? The story proper begins after George Edalji has served a jail sentence for mutilating horses, with Conan Doyle losing his wife, and finding that his grief is complicated by an ongoing affair with Jean Leckie. In his unhappiness, he seizes on the Edalji case, and becomes convinced that the convicted man is innocent, and a victim of racial prejudice.

It's a good story, and I thought the screenplay competent, though not outstanding. I haven't read the book, even though I'm a Barnes fan but I suspect the book is multi-layered in a way the TV show is not. Whitmore is a talented screenwriter whom I have praised on this blog in the past, but at times the action moved rather slowly. It may be that two hours, rather than three, would have been a more suitable time slot. But I shall certainly stick with it.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson - review

The Kind Worth Killing is a new crime novel written by Peter Swanson and published by Faber. It's also one of the most gripping thrillers I've read in a long time, thanks to a quite dizzying series of plot twists. I've not come across Swanson before, although his previous book, the intriguingly titled The Girl With a Clock for a Heart evidently did very well, but I'd be amazed if a film-maker didn't snap this one up. It's a story that would make an extremely suspenseful movie.

The opening is self-consciously reminiscent of Strangers on a Train. A rich man, Ted, meets a beautiful woman at an airport, and confides that he wants to kill his unfaithful wife. To his bewilderment, she starts to encourage him. The link to Patricia Highsmith is made explicit by the fact that the woman, Lily, is reading The Two Faces of January, and it turns out she's a crime fiction fan - Christie and Sayers are among her favourites. But what else is she? And what will Ted do about that wife of his?

One or two reviewers have complained that Swanson isn't as fine a writer, in terms of literary style, as Highsmith, and that's true. But then let's face it - few of us are. Swanson proceeds to make very different and imaginative use of the basic premise, while displaying a consistent ingenuity that wasn't really Highsmith's forte. In particular, he plays risky games with viewpoint. The way he plays one particular trick not once but two or three times is audacious in the extreme. Some people won't care for that device (to discuss it would be a spoiler) but I think he gets away with it. The key question is - which of the characters will get away with murder?

I think he could have made even more use of Lily's fondness for crime fiction in the second half of the book, while the very last twist reminded me rather of ironists like Anthony Berkeley.But above all, this is a fast-moving story that is compelling despite the fact that (as is not unusual in novels of psychological suspense) one struggles to identify with the main characters. I really enjoyed it from start to finish. And I bet that, had Hitchcock still been alive, he'd have loved it.  


Friday, 27 February 2015

Forgotten Book - Death by Request

My Forgotten Book for today dates from 1933. Death by Request is unusual in at least two respects. First, its authors were a husband and wife team, Romilly and Katherine John, a pair of Cambridge graduates who were both in their twenties. Second, they never published another novel - either jointly or separately. Surely they weren't disappointed with this first effort? It still reads pretty well today.

My copy dates back to the Eighties. Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan provided intros for several good books reissued by Hogarth Crime at that time, and they do a good job of setting the scene, although one comment that they make, whilst not really a spoiler, does give the alert crime fan a better chance of guessing the outcome.

The story is in some respects a light-hearted homage to Agatha Christie, with a clergyman narrator just as in Murder at the Vicarage. (Gladys Mitchell also wrote a book told in the first person by a member of the clergy at around the same time.) I enjoyed the prissy voice of the Rev. Joseph Colchester, as well as the witty portrayal of an idiotic colonel, who is constantly putting his foot in his mouth.

The authors offer us a traditional country house mystery, with Lord Malvern, who is a bit of a cad, found gassed in his bedroom. The door is locked, but this isn't really a locked room mystery. The cause of death is soon obvious, as is the fact that it was no accident. A socialist butler is one of the other incidental pleasures, and although I felt the action dragged a bit in the middle section, overall I enjoyed the story, and very much regret that Mr and Mrs John didn't write more mysteries.

Katherine became a translator of Scandinavian literature, while Romilly's best-known book was a memoir of his early years in a strange household presided over by his father, Augustus John. Oddly enough, yesterday I was in London, and went to visit the Foundling Museum, a fascinating place that I can strongly recommend. As part of an exhibition of the life and work of Jacob Epstein, who was fascinated by children, there was a bronze of....the young Romilly John. .

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Snorkel - film review

The Snorkel is a 1958 crime film that has stuck, very obstinately, in my mind since I first saw it as a young boy, together with my parents. I didn't know the terms "inverted mystery" or "locked room murder" in those days, but the story fits both descriptions, and it made a great impression on me. I kept hoping that it would resurface on television, but no luck. Happily, I have managed to find a Spanish DVD, which one can watch in English. I did wonder if it would live up to expectations. Were my positive memories of the film tinged with nostalgia? Well, possibly, but it remains extremely watchable, and I have no hesitation in recommending it.

The film begins with Paul Decker (played, excellently, by the menacing Peter Van Eyck - surely this was his finest role) carefully carrying out the murder of his wife. Cunningly, he stages it to look like a suicide. And everyone is fooled, except for his young step-daughter, Candy. She believes Paul killed her father, and has now killed her mother. She is spot on - but nobody believes her.

The suspense builds as Candy tries to discover how Paul carried out the crime. It's a cat and mouse story, very well handled. The original story was by Anthony Dawson, but I'm not sure if it was ever published. There has been some confusion about Dawson's identity, but it seems he was the same Anthony Dawson who was much better known as an actor, appearing in Dial M for Murder, and as an early incarnation of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Mandy Miller, a child star whose career did not last, plays Candy, and Betta St John plays the young woman Decker fancies. William Franklyn, a suavely reliable actor, has a modest role as the British consul. The screenplay is by the capable Jimmy Sangster, and the director is Guy Green.

For me, watching the film was not only a very enjoyable trip down memory lane but also a chance to enjoy again an under-rated suspense film. After watching, I checked it out on the internet, and found that it had not only been covered three years ago on the splendid Tipping My Fedora blog, but that I'd actually commented upon it at the time. I'd actually forgotten that, a sign of the amnesia that means I'd never make an efficient murderer. But at least I'm glad that I've never forgotten The Snorkel..

Monday, 23 February 2015

Broadchurch - series 2 (no spoilers)

Broadchurch was the best TV crime drama of 2013, on that I think there is a widespread consensus. The screenplay by Chris Chibnall did something relatively fresh and certainly impressive with the whodunit concept. As a result, there was a massive commercial imperative to make a second series, and I was one of millions of people looking forward to it. After tonight's final episode, how do I feel about it?

The first thing to say is that expectations often shape our reactions in a very unfortunate way. Many fans of the first series have found the follow-up deeply disappointing. And to an extent, I am among them. What I find more difficult to figure out, at least in terms of my instant reaction now that I know the outcome, is the extent to which this is because I admired the first series so much. The second series was bound to be different - did I give it enough credit on its own terms?

There were undeniably positives to take from the second series (sorry, the temptation to slip into footballer jargon proved irresistible.) The acting was very good, the new murder plot intriguing, and the setting visually compelling. Chris Chibnall worked hard to make sure that something gripping was always happening, or about to happen. And that's why I kept watching. But the screenplay achieved its grip at a price.

The first series was subtly written, but I felt the second went "over the top" too often for comfort. I didn't dislike it (some good judges did) but I felt that plausibility was sacrificed, and as a result I cared much less about the characters this time around. The murder trial plot seemed contrived and the lawyers' behaviour simply incredible. It's right to make allowances for fiction, but I found myself unable to suspend disbelief. Too often the storyline veered deep into soap opera territory. Now, soap operas can make compelling viewing, but I think it's a pity that Broadchurch moved so far in the direction of the wildly melodramatic. I definitely don't regret watching it, but something has changed. When I learned there was going to be a second series, I felt I must make sure that I saw it. There is to be a third series, but even with such a good writer, and fine actors, I no longer feel that it's a must-watch. I just hope series three confounds expectations in a very different way..

The Detection Collection

The Detection Collection is the latest book produced under the aegis of the Detection Club to be reissued by Harper Collins. It's a splendid anthology of short stories that was first published in 2005, under the editorship of Simon Brett, President of the Detection Club. And the list of contributors reads like a roll call of leading British crime writers.

Although I've written a couple of intros for earlier books in the series, Ask a Policeman and The Anatomy of Murder, I didn't have any involvement with this one, and the first thing to say is that Simon did a terrific job. His intro updates the foreword he wrote when the book first appeared, in 2005, and he explains that the book was put together to mark the 75th anniversary of the Club's foundation. At the time he first wrote the intro, there was some debate as to whether the Club did indeed come into existence in 1930, but I'm sure it did, and that the anniversary date was correctly calculated.

Simon mentions that sadly, four of the contributors, Margaret Yorke, Reg Hill, Bob Barnard and Harry Keating are no longer with us, (and even more recently, the great P.D. James has also died) but as he says, "they do live on through the quality of their work." I count it as a real privilege to have dined with all of them at Detection Club meetings, as well as on a few other memorable occasions, and I can only add that they were all as companionable and gracious in person as they were gifted. Simon also contributes a concise history of the Club, which appears at the end of the book.

In addition to the luminaries I've already mentioned, Colin Dexter, Lindsey Davis and John Harvey are among the contributors. Three writers who do not very often write short stories, Robert Goddard, Michael Ridpath and Clare Francis, also feature. As you would expect with writers of such calibre, their work stands the test of time. Ten years on, the stories read very well. I'm a fan of short stories, and enjoy collections of them, in any event, but even if anthologies aren't your usual cup of tea, I think you will find plenty in this book to entertain you..

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Murder Squad and CLIC Sargent

Something a little different today. First, news about Murder Squad, the group of six Northern crime writers which was set up almost fifteen years ago and is still going strong. I've been a member from day one, along with Margaret Murphy, whose brilliant idea it was, Cath Staincliffe and Ann Cleeves. More recently we've been joined by Kate Ellis and Chris Simms.

We're keen to remain in touch with our readers, and with that in mind, we're organising a giveaway, a bundle of six books, one by each of us. Details are on the Murder Squad website.

I'm also one of a large group of authors taking part in a "Get in Character 2015", a fund-raising campaign for CLIC Sargent, a charity focusing on young people with cancer. It's one of those "bid to have your name in a story" auctions. A short story due to become part of an ebook in my case, given that my next novel is already completed.

Whilst I don't have any close links to CLIC Sargent, I do know that cancer is a scourge that affects each and every one of us in some way, through the suffering of loved ones even if not ourselves. Having worked with charities, and in particular the hospice movement, for many years, I know that there's always a risk of compassion fatigue setting in as regards fund-raising efforts, but not having been involved in one of these auctions before, I thought it was a worthwhile thing to do, and I am optimistic that the involvement of such stellar names as Lee Child, Nicci French and Peter James will lead to a real boost to this charity's funds.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Francis Durbridge: A Centenary Appreciation

My enthusiasm for Francis Durbridge dates back to my school days - I was just eleven when I saw Bat Out of Hell on TV, and loved it. That serial starred John Thaw, long before he became Inspector Morse. Later, I enjoyed reading books about the genre written by Melvyn Barnes, and although he and I have never met, I've been delighted to get to know him via cyberspace, and recently to learn about a very worthwhile project of his, Francis Durbridge: A CentenaryAppreciation. So I invited Melvyn to write a guest blog to share the news - and here it is:

"I have never been a full-time writer, having spent my entire career as a chartered librarian until retiring in 2002 after eighteen years as Director of Libraries and Art Galleries for the City of London.  But crime fiction has been a lifetime interest, which led to part-time writing and the publication of my books Best Detective Fiction, Dick Francis, and Murder in Print, together with numerous contributions to magazines and reference books such as Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writers and Scribner’s Mystery and Suspense Writers.

As a youngster during the “wireless” years I was captivated by the Francis Durbridge serials featuring Paul Temple, and later by his television serials that in their day attracted record viewing figures.  So much so, that well into retirement I decided it was time to take up the pen again and fill a gap by producing a unique account of Durbridge’s work.

It proved to be an unexpectedly complex and lengthy process, requiring several years’ research including many sessions at the British Library, the (late lamented) Newspaper Library in Colindale and the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham.  This provided countless details about Durbridge’s twenty-eight Paul Temple radio serials and plays from 1938 to 1968, his seventeen television serials from 1952 to 1980, his thirty-five novels from 1938 to 1988 and his nine stage plays from 1971 onwards.  Truly surprising, however, was the extent of his other works – nine cinema films were made from his radio and television serials, he wrote three novels as newspaper serials that were never published in book form, two plays long before he was recognised as a stage dramatist, and a Paul Temple comic strip for the London Evening News which ran for over twenty years.  Most surprising of all was the revelation of his prolific output for the radio, which not only included many non-criminous scripts but also non-Temple plays and serials featuring other detectives, using his own name and three pseudonyms.

This long period of slogging research frequently led me from one reference to another, with the final clinching of answers to previously unresolved questions.  It not only informed my introductory survey of Durbridge’s work, but it resulted in a comprehensive annotated listing of his novels and all his other works – including the first full listing of his Paul Temple comic strips.  It also enabled me to provide summaries of his plots (without spoilers, of course), with production and cast details of his radio, television, stage and cinema works.  Another important achievement was to show the links between them, to identify which were original and which were re-writes.  My ultimate satisfaction, however, came from the unearthing of so much new information, and not least in debunking the numerous errors that perpetuate on the Internet.

Francis Durbridge died in 1998, but today he retains a substantial fan base and attracts many new enthusiasts.  His serials are regularly repeated on Radio 4 Extra, re-creations of his “lost” serials have been produced on Radio 4, his novels continue to be reprinted, and there is a thriving trade in audiobooks, e-books and DVDs.

Although my earlier books were commissioned by commercial publishers, this time I decided to go it alone.  A commercial publisher would have required something more elaborate, probably with extensive biographical material and the addition of illustrations (acquired at my own expense), whereas I felt confident that I had already achieved all I set out to do.

So to order a signed copy of this 140 page paperback, post/packing included (UK only), send a cheque for £10.99 (payable to Melvyn Barnes) to 7 Netherhall Close, Old Newton, Stowmarket, Suffolk IP14 4RP.  And for overseas orders, information can be obtained by emailing "

I can only add that my copy arrived today and I'm enjoying reading it already.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Forgotten Book - Heir to Lucifer

I've mentioned John Rhode (whose real name was Cecil John Street) several times in this blog. He was a prolific writer, and in addition to countless Rhode books, he wrote a long series under the name Miles Burton. Over the years I've picked up numerous Burtons, but only in recent times have I got round to reading some of them. One of them is Heir to Lucifer, first published in 1947, and it's my Forgotten Book for today.

Although it is a post-war book, it seems on the surface to be a classic country house mystery. Desmond Merrion, late of Naval Intelligence, is Burton's regular amateur sleuth, who made his debut in a much earlier book, The Secret of High Eldersham, that I read a few weeks back and will probably cover one Friday soon. The book opens with Merrion and his wife Mavis setting off for the small resort of Croylehaven, because Mavis has been under the weather. It's not an ideal choice, since mystery and mayhem promptly ensue - yet with each violent death, Mavis seems to perk up a bit more...

Croylehaven is dominated by Castle Croyle, home to the eponymous Lucifer, a rich old man surrounded by relatives who are financially dependent on him. Usually, this set-up means that the old chap will soon be a goner,but this is an unusual book. Lucifer survives, although a small boy is killed, an attempt is made on Lucifer's life, and a murder victim's corpse is discovered at an ice-house. By this time, the Merrions have become honoured guests at the Castle, forever popping in and out - the way you do when violent deaths keep occurring.

This is an odd book and its resolution is strange, untypical and rather disturbing. Yet I found it readable and interesting. Rhode/Burton does a pretty good job of making sure that you never know what to expect, and he certainly confounded my theory about the crime. There's a touch of darkness and irony about the ending that would, I suspect, have appealed to Rhode's Detection Club colleague Anthony Berkeley. Definitely worth a look, and by no means as conventional as the basic ingredients might suggest..