Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Love from a Stranger - 1937 film review

Love from a Stranger is a 1937 crime film, and a very interesting one too. For a start, it's based on a story by Agatha Christie - "Philomel Cottage". Christie adapted it for the stage, but a more renowned theatrical version was written by the actor, director and playwright Frank Vosper. His play had a very good run in the West End, though it didn't do so well on Broadway. His mysterious death by drowning in 1937 is discussed in The Golden Age of Murder.

1937 also saw the release of this film version of his script. Carol Howard (played by an American actress, Ann Harding, in a slightly odd piece of casting) and her friend Kate (Binnie Hale) lead a humdrum and fairly impoverished life in London, but Carol's bloke, Ronnie (Bruce Seton) is due to return from years working in Africa. Then Carol wins the French lottery...

Her life changes in many ways. Above all, she ditches dear old Ronnie in favour of a suave chap who comes to look round her flat when she puts it on the market. The new beau is played by Basil Rathbone, and although the script eventually requires him to ham things up a bit, he brings his customary chaiisma to the role, as well as, eventually, a good deal of menace.

But this film also offers a special treat, undreamed of when it was made. Carol's maid, the extremely stupid Emmy, is played by Joan Hickson. Yes, the future Miss Marple makes an early film appearance, in a smallish but striking part. I very much enjoyed seeing this. All in all, it's still good entertainment. Yes, we can guess what's coming, but it's nicely done, all the same.

Monday, 20 March 2017

No Trace - aka Murder by the Book - 1950 film review

No Trace, also known as Murder by the Book, is a crime film from 1950 which benefits from a cast with strength in depth. It's the story of a crime novelist who finds himself driven by sheer desperation to commit murder. Ah, a familiar feeling, you may say. Perhaps I'll refrain from comment as to the plausibility of the premise!

The novelist, Robert Southley, is very successful, and has a devoted and very attractive secretary (Dinah Sheridan) as well as chums in the police force - an inspector played by John Laurie, later of Dad's Army fame, and a sergeant who also fancies the secretary, who is played by Barry Morse, later the remorseless cop who pursued Richard Kimble for so long in the seemingly never-ending TV series The Fugitive.

Southley is played by Hugh Sinclair, and this is one of those stories where a chap who is on the straight and narrow is suddenly confronted by someone from his less salubrious past who is intent on blackmail. We're asked to believe that the upright Southley was once a member of a gang that went around the US burgling places. I did find it difficult to suspend my belief here, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Sinclair is really the weakest link in the whole cast. I really wasn't sure what the secretary saw in him.

The story unfolds rather nicely - it's one of those where we see a killer execute a clever plan, and the question is whether he'll get away with it or be tripped up by smart detective work. Along the way, there are roles for Dora Bryan and the ubiquitous Sam Kydd. All in all it's a very watchable film, although some fuzziness about Southley's characterisation means that it isn't quite as gripping as it might have been.



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Friday, 17 March 2017

Forgotten Book - The Test Match Murder

The Test Match Murder, first published in 1936 (and not, as far as I know, ever reprinted) is my Forgotten Book for today. It was written by Denzil Batchelor, a British journalist and broadcaster who became interested in sports writing while working in Sydney. And this book is set, not as you might expect at Lord's Cricket Ground or The Oval, but in Sydney. England's star batsman, Franklyn, dies sensationally while walking out to the crease with his team already struggling at eight for three.

I first became aware of Batchelor many years ago, after reading a witty cricket essay of his, but I didn't know he'd written a cricket-based crime novel. This is certainly an obscure one, and I had hopes that it might prove to be an undiscovered masterpiece. I'm afraid it is not, although it's amusing in patches - there's a nice spoof of the Great Detective character - and ends quite well.

Franklyn has been poisoned by, of all things, curare. Someone at Sydney Cricket Ground has tampered with his batting glove. But who? Some of the detective work is done by Owen Brownlow and his sleuthing brother Latimer, but the official police investigator eventually takes centre stage. The story sags badly in the middle, with the introduction of dope gangs and even (despite the strictures of Ronald Knox) a mysterious Chinaman, These features never, in my experience, improve a Golden Age detective novel..

Overall, though, the book was worth persevering with. There's not much about cricket in it, which I found regrettable, but which those who don't love cricket may be glad to hear. Batchelor was a talented writer, and on his death at the age of 63 in 1969, his friends noted his great versatility. It was common in the mid-Thirties for people to dabble in detective fiction, and in some ways he reminds me of the better known Alan Melville, who also wrote crime stories early in his career. This book is very hard to find but despite its limitations, I'm glad I tracked down a copy.    

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Life in Danger - 1959 film review

Life in Danger is a short, but pleasingly suspenseful film released in 1959 and starring Derren Nesbitt. The screenplay was written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, who became dependable television writers in the Sixties, and the director was Terry Bishop, who also worked on several TV series that I recall dimly from my youth.

We see Nesbitt running through the countryside, and soon learn that a dangerous killer has just escaped from a nearby asylum. Nesbitt's character is socially awkward, and he doesn't have any money. A woman takes pity on him and gives him some coins, but his attempt to find work from a local publican goes awry. There is a sign on the wall saying that gypsies are not served, and Nesbitt makes himself scarce after a policeman comes into the pub.

His next move is to go to a nearby farm. Here he befriends an unhappy young girl whose parents treat her badly. She fancies him and when he says he needs some rest, takes him to a secret place in a barn. Her young brother joins them, while at the same time the hunt for the escaped murderer intensifies. A local major, played by Howard Marion-Crawford, tries both to impress his girlfriend and take the law into his own hands.

I enjoyed this film, even though I suppose some might say that the twist is not very satisfactorily foreshadowed. But the pace of the story makes it easy to suspend disbelief. The young girl was played by Julie Hopkins, and I find it sad that her acting career seems not to have got very far. She does a good job in this role, and the presentation of prejudice and vigilante instincts is rather well done, even if some of the attitudes displayed seem very, very out of date. Which, nearly sixty years on, is almost inevitable.

Monday, 13 March 2017

UAE Reflections

I was keen to take part in the Emirates Literature Festival for several reasons. One of them was the chance to meet several leading authors whom I'd never encountered in person before. It was a great pleasure to have several conversations with Kathy Reichs, and her husband Paul, and with another British crime writer and cricket lover, Vaseem Khan, and his wife Nirupama. But quite apart from people working in my genre, there was an eclectic mix of leading writers, from sci-fi superstar Peter F. Hamilton to well-known faces from the TV such as Jim Naughtie, Frank Gardner, and Alan Titchmarsh. And it was equally good to talk to a variety of readers, including a long time supporter of this blog, Golden Age collector Clint Stacey, and the daughter of someone I'd met in Madrid, of all places, the previous week; it's a very small world.

Several trips were laid on for us, and one special treat was an evening walking party of ten led by Paul Blezard. Paul took us round the spice and gold souqs, and after a boat trip across the creek, we finished up snacking in a waterside restaurant. If you'd told me  that one day I'd go on a jaunt in the company of Stephen Hawking's daughter Lucy, Hemingway's grandson John, Kathy Reichs and Jim Naughtie's wife, I wouldn't have believed you. For me, it was all rather surreal, but these celebrities were very good company. The walk was followed by dinner in the festival hotel, though by that stage I really should have resisted the urge to carry on eating...


There was a night-time desert feast, watching the flamingoes on the bank during a trip on the impressive new canal, a visit to the amazing opera house, with a talk given by the building's architect, and an ascent to the (almost) the top of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. At an event where the UAE was celebrated with a series of talks from leading local people, I chatted with Peter, who told me that detective elements play a part in his fiction. I'm now really keen to read his The Great North Road, despite his warning me that it's a very long novel!



Listening to those local people talk, I sympathised with their frustration at media stereotypes of Dubai. As a leading local film-maker said, it's not really soulless, and to see it only as a place of shopping malls and retail therapy for lovers of bling is unfair. Thanks to oil, Dubai has come a long way in a short time, but people realise that the oil won't last forever, and they are making huge efforts to develop their cultural life. Education is a key priority, as the festival director emphasised, and many authors made a contribution to this by visiting schools in the area. It's not a perfect society, but then, I've yet to encounter a perfect society.Events such as the Festival help to foster understanding between people from very different backgrounds and cultures, and that has to be a good thing.


Sharjah, where I spent half a day along with Rob Davies, was different but equally interesting. In the course of a week, one cannot get a full picture of a place, but I felt that I learned something about the UAE's brand of Islam,and I'm sure that the coming years will see more progress. I found it all rather inspirational. And yes, that did include the inspiration for a new story. I plan to call it "The Repentance Wood", and in case you're wondering, here is a photo of the original Repentance Wood in Sharjah...








Saturday, 11 March 2017

Back from the UAE

I've returned to the UK after a truly memorable trip to the United Arab Emirates, where I took part in the Emirates Airline Literature Festival. I've participated in a great many literary events over the past twenty-five years or so, but I can safely say that this festival in Dubai was very special, and not merely because its remit is the whole of literature, rather than just crime fiction, or because all the authors are exceptionally well looked after. It was a chance to meet some fascinating people, and also to have a glimpse of a country and a culture which I found extremely thought-provoking.
I was involved with three events, notably a commission to create a Murder Mystery Dinner for about 250 people. My story, which involved a puzzle surrounding the arrival at a festival of a famously reclusive author was brought to life by a splendid cast of actors. Various luminaries, including Kathy Reichs, Tanya Landman, and Jim Naughtie's wife Ellie Updale, herself a notable author, played the part of "consulting detectives" to help or hinder the diners in their attempt to figure out the solution. It was great fun and when announcing the winner of the competition, I took the opportunity to point out that thankfully, the information had not been passed to me by Price Waterhouse Cooper...
Rob Davies of the British Library and I were interviewed by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey about the Golden Age of Murder, and I also took part in a panel with Kathy (whose debut novel I remember reading and admiring back in the late 90s, never dreaming I'd one day meet her) and Vaseem Khan, one of the rising stars of British crime fiction, moderated by Australia's Liz Porter. Both Ellah and Liz did a great job, and a question from the audience to Rob and me proved to come from a Daily Telegraph journalist, who duly wrote a story about the gender divide in terms of classic crime fiction.
If time permits, I'll write a separate blog post about Dubai and Sharjah, and the other events I became involved in. For now, I'd just like to say how much I admired the hard work undertaken by Isobel Abulhoul, Yvette Judge, and their team, not forgetting the army of 800 (yes, 800, it's not a typo) volunteers and the world's snazziest green room (below photo). They all contributed to making it a week I (and I'm sure many others) will long remember with great appreciation.


Friday, 10 March 2017

Forgotten Book - A Twist of the Rope

The revival of interest in the crime fiction of John Bude is nothing less than astonishing. A few years ago, I was barely aware of him, and had read none of his books. Then Nigel Moss, a keen collector of Golden Age fiction, and one of the most knowledgeable authorities on the subject, told me how much he liked Bude's work, and kindly gave me a copy of one of the author's books. Some time after that, the British Library asked me to write introductions to Bude's first two mysteries, which they were planning to reprint.

The rest is history. The Cornish Coast Murder and The Lake District Murder proved hugely popular, and have since been followed in the Crime Classics series by The Sussex Downs Murder, The Cheltenham Square Murder, and Death on the Riviera. Another Bude novel is also due to appear in the series in due course - more of that at a later date. Meanwhile, I've been trying to find out as much about Bude and his work as I can, not least from members of his family, whose help has been invaluable.

Despite the success of the Bude reprints, his other books are still very hard to find, but my Forgotten Book for today is his penultimate novel, published in 1958. A Twist of the Rope is praised by Herbert Harris in an essay about Bude in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, dating back to 1980, and this tempted me to have a look at the story. It's a pacy novel, a thriller in much the same style and mood as those black and white crime B-movies that were popular in the late 50s..

It's a multiple viewpoint story. A deranged serial killer has escaped from an asylum, and takes refuge with an astonishingly obliging woman - I have to say that I found the police's failure to pick him up quickly rather unimpressive. We also follow the intertwined lives of several other people in the same small town, including a young guitar player called Johnny who falls for a rich but flaky young woman. When the girl is killed, it seems at first that the crazy serial killer is responsible. But Bude shifts the suspicion for the crime around quite neatly. It's a sound mystery, very much in keeping with its period, and reflecting Bude's desire to move with the times and update his approach to the genre, something he accomplished quite effectively.


Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Guilty? aka By Whose Hand? - 1956 film review

I was delighted to spot Guilty?, a black and white crime film dating back to 1956, in the Talking Pictures schedule. This movie, also known as By Whose Hand?, is based on Michael Gilbert's novel Death Has Deep Roots, published five years earlier, which I've read and enjoyed a couple of times. As far as I know, it's the only film based on a Gilbert book other than the better-known Danger Within, based on Death in Captivity. This is rather surprising, given that Gilbert wrote vividly; his work was very suitable for screen adaptation.

Gilbert didn't write the screenplay - that was done by someone called Maurice J. Wilson. The credits reveal that additional dialogue was supplied by Ernest Dudley - who along with Gilbert was one of the founders of the Crime Writers' Association. But there is an even more intriguing connection to be deduced from the credits. The soundtrack was composed by Bruce Montgomery - the real name of Gilbert's fellow Detection Club member Edmund Crispin. Quite something to have a fellow crime writer produce the music for a film of your book!

The story combines a courtroom drama - a young Frenchwoman is on trial for her life- with an adventurous investigation into a criminal conspiracy that dates back to the war and the Nazi occupation of France (hence the "deep roots"). The accused's solicitor is Nap Rumbold, one of those appealing characters who crop up sporadically in Gilbert's work without quite becoming major series characters.

John Justin plays Rumbold, and does a a good job with a meaty part. Andree Debarr is his glamorous client, and Barbara Laage is a mysterious blonde woman who seems to be following Rumbold around for no particular reason. A sound cast includes such reliable actors as Russell Napier and Sydney Tafler., while Donald Wolfit plays the judge. I enjoyed the film, even though it doesn't match the excellence of the novel.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Elizabeth is Missing - book review

Elizabeth is Missing, first published in 2014, was the first novel by Emma Healey. It became a Sunday Times bestseller, and won the Costa First Novel award. The book earned much critical acclaim - not least from the late, great Ruth Rendell. Rendell said, "I've never read anything quite like it", and this was not a double-edged choice of phrase. It really is a terrific novel.

I suppose you'd call it a mainstream work of fiction, but it's also, arguably, a crime novel. It's a story told in the first person by Maud, an elderly woman who is suffering memory loss. Maud lives in her own house, but her forgetfulness is starting to become a real cause of concern to her daughter, who overcomes many frustrations and treats her mother, at least for the vast majority of the time, with a good deal of kindness. But we also see how challenging it can be to cope with a loved one who is ageing in this way. The patience of a saint is sometimes required, and very few of us are saints.

Maud has become concerned that her friend Elizabeth can't be found, but she can't get anyone to take her seriously. As she frets about Elizabeth's absence, her mind goes back to her youth, and the disappearance of her older sister. It seems that people suspected that her sister was murdered, and there is more than one possible culprit, but the mystery was never solved.

When I read this book, I didn't regard it first and foremost as a crime story. It's simply a great piece of writing about a wonderfully realised character and her life. At times I found it almost unbearably poignant. Suffice to say that it's one of the most impressive novels I've read in the past few years. I don't know how Emma Healey is going to surpass it, but I'll be fascinated to read her next book. She has tremendous talent.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Forgotten Book - Buried for Pleasure

Although I've chosen one of his novels for today's Forgotten Book, the happy truth is that Edmund Crispin has never been entirely forgotten as a crime writer. I was recently interviewed about Crispin by a magazine in Colombia, of all places. I was told that Crispin's name is no longer very familiar over there, but I think I'm right in saying that he's always had some admirers in the US. And certainly the recent reissue of several of his books in the UK has kindled further interest here.

In Buried for Pleasure, Gervase Fen rather rashly decides to stand for Parliament, and finds himself staying in a rickety inn in Sanford Angelorum, meeting an assortment of unlikely characters. These include a vicar who is plagued by a poltergeists, and although some of the scenes bear only a limited relation to the central mystery plot, they are never less than amusing and well-written.

Fen comes across an undercover police officer, investigating a questionable recent death - occasioned by consuming - guess what? - poisoned chocolates. Soon the police officer himself is murdered, and there is an obvious suspect. But we all know that obvious suspects are innocent, right? (Unless the author is Agatha Christie, that is, and she has a cunning double-bluff in mind).

I enjoyed this book. It's short and entertaining, and even if the murder mystery is flawed in some ways (I was irked that Fen's conversation with the deceased was censored so as to deprive us of vital information, but the whole story depended on this) it makes for a very good relaxing read - ideal for a holiday. The political stuff also is handled with a light touch. It's such a shame that Crispin's career was so short-lived. But he left a considerable literary legacy.