Monday, 21 July 2014

Headhunters - film review

Headhunters is a 2011 film based on a novel written three years earlier by the prolific and much acclaimed Jo Nesbo. I've read two or three of Nesbo's books about Harry Hole, but this novel is a stand-alone, and makes a very interesting movie. At first, I thought the tone was uneven and unsatisfactory, but before long I warmed to the story, which proved to be much twistier than first appeared likely. The way that expectations are set up, only to be confounded, is one of the film's real strengths.

The protagonist (I can't bring myself to call him a hero) is Roger Brown, an ace recruitment consultant, or headhunter.He is married to a very attractive, if high-maintenance, woman, and lives far beyond his means. His wife wants to have a child, but he doesn't. He's too busy resorting to art theft as a means of supplementing his sizeable, yet still inadequate, income.

When I thought the film might be a comedy thriller about bungled art thefts, I wasn't too excited, but the action soon warms up, when Roger discovers that his wife is having an affair with a rather mysterious chap who hopes that Roger will find him a plum job. Before long, things turn very nasty indeed, and the fast-paced story wanders all over the place as, reluctantly, the audience starts to root for Roger to get out of the very deep hole he has dug himself into.

I've known, quite a number of headhunters in my working life, and members of that profession featured in my novel Take My Breath Away.In real life, I've found headhunters very good company - the nature of the job tends to make them very convivial. And suffice to say that, although recruitment consultants as a breed can definitely show plenty of imagination, and not always in a good way (charming though they invariably are), I've never met anyone in the least like Roger Brown. Just as well, really....

Friday, 18 July 2014

Forgotten Book - The Hours Before Dawn

Celia Fremlin's Edgar-winning debut novel, The Hours Before Dawn, earned great acclaim on its first publication in 1958, and it only qualifies as a Forgotten Book by virtue of its age. Many readers are well aware of Fremlin as a gifted novelist of suspense, and this book, along with a few others such as The Spider Orchid, retains its appeal to this day. It certainly should never be forgotten.

My edition, which dates back to the 80s, is a paperback which benefits from an interesting introductory note by Fremlin herself. I always find such pieces interesting. She describes how the idea of the story came from having her second baby, who used to scream through the night. A similar problem is encountered by Louise, the central figure in her book, whose third child, a little boy who can't get to sleep at night, causes increasing difficulties which are exacerbated by the arrival in their suburban London home of a female lodger, who seems to be something of a woman of mystery.

Louise isn't helped by the selfishness of her husband, and before long she starts to fear for her marriage. The husband doesn't seem to be very sympathetically portrayed, but Fremlin denied that she regarded him as some sort of monster. I'm not sure that her intentions with regard to his characterisation were perfectly implemented, but his behaviour contributes to Louise's sense of isolation and fear, and helps to build the tension.

This is a short book, with a relatively straightforward plot, and the device Fremlin uses for revealing what is happening to Louise strikes me as a little clumsy. This was, after all, a beginner's book. But it has a raw power which I find impressive, and well deserved its success. Today's experts in psychological suspense often write long, complex book, but this relatively slender and early work in the field stands comparison with the best of them.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Eric Ambler - guest blog by Peter Lewis

Peter and Margaret Lewis have been good friends of mine for more than 25 years. They have a distinguished track record in academe, and have both written some fiction, but are best known for their books about other writers - Margaret, for instance, wrote a super book about Ngaio Marsh. They also ran Flambard Press, and published Dancing for the Hangman. Today, I'm delighted to host a guest blog by Peter about a book which I can strongly recommend. 

"Once upon a time I was commissioned by Continuum Publishing in New York to write a book about Eric Ambler, with the emphasis on his literary achievement, originality and influence. Not, then, a conventional  biography. This arose after I was awarded an Edgar (Edgar Allan Poe Award) by the Mystery Writers of America for the best non-fiction mystery title of the year published in the US: my book about John le CarrĂ©.

Eric Ambler was very much alive at this time and back in London after many years in Hollywood and Switzerland, so I approached him via his literary agent in the hope that he would be willing to discuss the proposed book. In reply, he cautiously expressed interest in it and suggested that we meet to see how he could help. That successful first meeting set the pattern for quite a few more in the late 1980s: an extremely leisurely lunch in Mayfair, always involving an excellent Chablis. Because of his reputation as a writer of that supposedly lowest of  literary forms, the thriller, he hadn’t attracted much in the way of academic interest, and was obviously keen to discover what an academic like myself was making of his oeuvre, especially his eighteen novels. My book about him, published as a hardback in 1990, was to be the first full-length critical evaluation of his fiction. I wrote it on an Amstrad, which still lurks in a corner of the attic. A museum piece. I didn’t have the advantage of the internet when working on the 1990 book, whereas I benefited enormously from it in preparing the new version.

Eric was not writing a great deal in his later years, and his final novel, The Care of Time, came out in 1981. Even so, he lived for almost a decade after my book was published, and it could hardly be described as a definitive study. It was bound to seem incomplete. I thought about revising and updating it, but didn’t get round to it until Endeavour Press expressed an interest in publishing the original version as an eBook. I wasn’t in favour of simply reissuing  it as it stood, and persuaded Endeavour to publish a revised and slightly expanded version to complete what seemed incomplete. Still a work in progress.

I continued to see Eric in London occasionally after my book was published, but neither he nor his wife, Joan Harrison, was in good health in the 1990s, and Joan died in August 1994 after a long illness. The most surprising thing that happened in that decade was the first American publication in 1990 of his debut novel, The Dark Frontier, more than fifty years after its British publication in 1936. Early on, Eric had lost the US copyright. It was thanks to Mysterious Press in New York that the novel finally surfaced in the US, and Mysterious Press soon followed this in 1991 with Waiting for Orders, subtitled The Complete Short Stories of Eric Ambler. This contains the eight stories he had published in a writing career of almost sixty years, indicating that he was much less at home with the short form than with the novel. Eric was to write one more story: ‘The One Who Did for Blagden Cole’. This longish narrative was commissioned for a fiction Festschrift, The Man Who . . . , to honor the distinguished English literary scholar, critic and writer Julian Symons on his eightieth birthday in 1992. The book, containing thirteen stories by prominent crime and thriller writers was edited by H.R.F. Keating on behalf of the British Detection Club and published in London by Macmillan.

After The Care of Time, Eric’s London publishers Weidenfeld and Nicolson encouraged him to write his autobiography in the 1980s, and in 1985 he published one volume covering the years up to the late 1940s, Here Lies,  with its teasing title printed above his name on the jacket to produce the startlingly ambiguous HERE LIES ERIC AMBLER. A second volume was expected in the 1990s but did not appear. Eric’s final book with another teasing title, The Story So Far: Memories & Other Fictions, was published in 1993 and is an unusual medley. It contains all nine of his published stories, the eight collected in Waiting for Orders plus the new one he wrote for The Man Who . . . in a slightly modified form, but these are interwoven with four sections of autobiography, ‘Beginning’, ‘End of the Beginning’, ‘Middle’, and ‘To Be Continued’. It is typical of Ambler’s fondness for irony that the fourth and final section  is not called ‘End’ but ‘To Be Continued’, although it seems clear that he had no intention of continuing with his autobiography. By the time of his death on 22 October 1998 aged eighty-nine Eric was at last receiving the serious academic attention he deserves for his major literary achievement. Books by the American scholars Ronald Ambrosetti, Peter Wolfe and Robert Lance Snyder followed in the wake of mine. It is a pity that Eric did not live long enough to see the Swiss scholar Stefan Howald’s monumental and magisterial Eric Ambler: Eine Biographie (2002). At long last Eric was being celebrated as a major novelist."

Monday, 14 July 2014

"Strange Stories" and Robert Aickman

The best ghost and horror stories can be extremely memorable, and both genres appeal to me a good deal. I enjoyed writing "No Flowers",my first published supernatural story, for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and this is now, of all things, a podcast on the EQMM site. Janet Hutchings, the wonderful editor, persuaded me to read and record it myself, at the Malice Domestic Convention in May.

In terms of influences, I'm bound to name Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and along with M.R. James, top of the list of my favourite writers in this field is Robert Aickman. I first came across his "strange stories", as he liked to term them (and it's the perfect description) in the Eighties, having enjoyed a number of anthologies that he'd edited. However, by then he was already dead (he lived from 1914 to 1981) and, to be honest, I have not read him for a long time.

All that has changed thanks to an excellent initiative from Faber. They are reprinting Aickman's work, some in mass market paperback and some as Faber Finds, and so far I've had the chance to enjoy three paperback collections of his stories. Dark Entries, Cold Hand in Mine, and The Wine-Dark Sea. As a result, I've become an Aickman fan all over again. His cool, elegant writing, and seducttive, intensely imagined storylines are genuinely gripping, and his work is much more original than most in this field.

An outstanding feature of these three books is the valuable added material that they contain - pertinent introductions by famous fans of Aickman, and personal reminiscences of the man by people who knew.him. Every single item is well written and interesting. Aickman seems to have been as fascinating as his work - not always an easy man (he was a prime mover in the worthy field of preserving inland waterways, but apparently fell out spectacularly with his colleagues) but charming and civilised. Neil Gaiman and Ramsey Campbell are among Aickman's admirers, and I feel sure that these nicely produced books will earn many more. I look forward to reading the rest of this excellent series.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Forgotten Book - Where Every Prospect Pleases

Where Every Prospect Pleases, first published in 1933, is one of just two books that E.R. Punshon published under the name Robertson Halkett, and although it is hard to find, it's a thriller with one or two touches that (as is often the case with Punshon's work) lift it out of the ordinariness suggested by the title. Punshon was a prolific writer, and probably wrote too much, but at his best he was pretty good.

Much of the action takes place in Monaco, although in the later stages, it shifts a few miles, to the south of France. At the start of the story, Philip Hargreaves is visiting the grave of his older brother John, an inventor who is believed by the authorities to have shot himself after running up debts in the casino. Philip, a young and rather naive fellow, is at least shrewd enough to realise that this is a case where all is not as it seems, and he shows a dogged determination to find out the truth.

Soon he finds himself embroiled in a mysterious sequence of events. Befriended by a Lancastrian called Briggs, he discovers clues in his late brother John's effects that lead him to suspect that a man called Summerville knows something about what happened to John. A strange encounter with a hostile waitress in a tea room and the curious behaviour of a fellow guest at the place where John stayed before his death are precursors to Philip's discovery that something very sinister is afoot in the stunning area between the Mediterranean and the mountains.

Punshon also indulges his taste for the macabre. We don't associate Golden Age  mysteries with scenes set in orgies where eager guests are treated to whipping shows, blue movies, and much more besides, but they are all elements of the criminal's design in this book, believe it or not, although in keeping with the times, this lurid material is handled decorously, This book isn't a masterpiece, but it's certainly readable, perhaps more so than some of Punshon's more conventional mysteries. I was lucky to track it down, and if you have similar fortune, I don't think this lively thriller will disappoint you. The name Halkett, incidentally, appealed to me so much that I borrowed it for a macabre story of my own, "Mr Halkett's Hobby".

Thursday, 10 July 2014

John Harvey and "Fedora"

I enjoyed last week's CWA Daggers Dinner, which was extremely well organised, in particular by CWA director Lucy Santos. It was a pleasure to be invited to join the table of Severn House, publishers of the CWA anthology, and Edwin Buckhalter and his team were very good company. Two stories from Deadly Pleasures, written by John Harvey and by my friend and Murder Squad colleague Cath Staincliffe, were short-listed for the CWA Short Story Dagger,and naturally I was hoping that one of them would prove to be the winner.

And as luck would have it, John Harvey won, for his story "Fedora". But luck really had nothing to do with it, since it is an absolutely terrific story. I had the good fortune, when putting the anthology together, to receive a great many enjoyable stories, and several that I thought were really notable. But none of them, on first reading, made such an impression on me as "Fedora". Sometimes, my judgment of these things proves to be very different from that of the real judges. But with all due deference to the other contenders, I don't think there's a lot of doubt that this was the right choice.

"Fedora" is a story which is enormously topical, in the post-Jimmy Savile era, and John mentioned in his acceptance speech that it was remarkable timing that his award coincided with the conviction of Rolf Harris for several serious criminal offences. I'm not going to spoil the story, save to say that it's genuinely memorable and thought- provoking.

I first came across John Harvey's work when I was sent his first Charlie Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, to review. I was greatly impressed, although also a bit shaken. His book, like the debut novel I was writing at the time, had loneliness as its theme, but I realised that he was a much more accomplished author than me. I didn't know then that he'd written a lot of westerns and was also a noted poet, but I could tell he was going to be a major crime writer, and when he appeared at a local Waterstone's, I hot-footed it there to listen to him, and to get him to sign my copy. Reading books like John's inspired me to work even harder on All the Lonely People, and make sure it was as good as it could be. John's a different sort of crime writer from me, less interested perhaps in plot and puzzle, but his work is always gripping.

Years later, I got to know him a bit, and I've always found him a thoughtful and interesting person, as well as a fine novelist. He was a worthy winner of the CWA Diamond Dagger in the years when I chaired the sub-committee which drew up the shortlist for that award. As he noted in his acceptance speech, he sometimes needs a bit of encouragement to write for anthologies, but I hope he will continue to do so. His short fiction is just as interesting as his longer work..

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

American Gigolo - film review

I watched American Gigolo not too long after it first came out in 1980, and found it a reasonably enjoyable thriller, though not in the same league as Taxi Driver, which also had a screenplay written by Paul Schrader. When it cropped up on the TV schedules,I decided to take another look. It's still perfectly watchable, but it's also a very good illustration of the fact that nothing dates faster than fashion. American Gigolo was quite stylish thirty-odd years ago, but now it is in some respects a period piece.

Richard Gere plays Julian, the eponymous gigolo, and Lauren Hutton, the wife of a rising politician, falls for him in a big way. Unfortunately, Julian is mixed up with some very dodgy people, and is hired to perform with a rich financier's wife while the rich financier, who is keen on violence towards women, watches. A couple of days later, the wife is murdered, and Julian becomes the prime suspect.

The crime plot is straightforward, and not terribly interesting, something which originally was quite well disguised by the sexy style of the film, but which is now rather more obvious. Lauren Hutton is a woman of legendary beauty, and Richard Gere is a very good-looking man, and (although the likes of the equally charismatic Julie Christie, and also John Travolta, were considered for the parts at one time) their appeal helps to explain why the film was, and I think remains, quite popular. Nina van Pallandt (remember the singing duo Nina and Frederick?) also features, but although the film has quite a few good moments, overall it now seems excessively long, with less to it than meets the eye.

There's an interesting contrast between the music used in Taxi Driver and the soundtrack of this movie. Bernard Herrmann scored Taxi Driver, and although at the time he was coming to the end of his career, and had been abandoned by Hitchcock, there is a timelessness about his music which helps to make it memorable. Giogio Moroder composed the soundtrack of American Gigolo, and although I like his work, again that electronic sound now has a very Eighties feel about it. This is not by any means a bad movie, and is still a perfectly good time-passer. But the fashionable flourishes that were integral to its original success are now more like an encumbrance.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Forgotten Book - Death in the Dark

Death in the Dark by Stacey Bishop is today's Forgotten Book. I've been hunting for it for a good many years - I first heard of it when I read Julian Symons' wonderful history of the genre, Bloody Murder, a book which interested me in a great many books and writers of which I'd never previously heard (in part because their books weren't in my local library). The book was published in 1930, but is extremely rare. I'm glad I've finally managed to read it, though to buy a copy would be beyond my budget - in fact, so obscure is it, that I've never seen a copy for sale.

As Symons indicated, it's an extraordinary book, written by an extraordinary man. Stacey Bishop was a pseudonym for Georges Antheil, a controversial American avant-garde composer who was a great fan of Stravinsky, and also a good friend of Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot. Stravinsky and Pound get generous mentions in the story, while the book's UK edition was published by Faber, a company with which Eliot was very closely connected.

The book begins in dazzling fashion, setting out a summary of what is to happen (an impossible crime is included) in a tantalising way that is almost impossible to resist .In classic fashion, we're also provided with a plan of the apartment in which the first shooting (in a series of them) takes place. The story is told by Stacey Bishop, who acts as a Dr Watson to the brilliant sleuth Stephan Bayard.

There are, I am sure, a lot of in-jokes in this story, most of which were lost on me. Bishop has a great deal to say about modern music, and I'm sure he was paying off old scores. There's a touch of S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen in the complexity of the problem, but the small and thinly characterised circle of suspects didn't appeal to me very much. I found the whole thing fascinating but highly eccentric and the interest of this book lies in its oddity, its rarity and the remarkable nature of the author rather than in the excellence of the plot. I'm delighted I found it, though, and I'm very grateful to the kind person who made it possible. Symons mentioned a rumour that there was a second Stacey Bishop book, but there's no evidence to suggest that Antheil ever returned to the genre. One thing is for sure, if he had written another crime story, it could not have been much stranger than this one.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Frenzy - film review

Frenzy was Alfred Hitchcock's penultimate film. It dates from 1972, and boasts a fine cast and a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on the book Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern, whose work I have not read (but I don't think he specialised in crime.) It's a story about a psychopathic serial killer, and Hitchcock tried a number of tricks with the movie, as well as combining black humour with a very dark subject. The result is a curious mish-mash, which has some strengths - yet one feels it could and should have been better.

Hitchcock returned here to his native London, and much of the action takes place around Covent Garden, just before it ceased to be a traditional market. Women are being strangled by a "necktie killer", and a bad-tempered loser called Blaney (the charismatic Jon Finch, an actor who never quite achieved as much as he seemed capable of) becomes the prime suspect. But the suspense derives from the fact that the audience soon realises that he is being set up by a false friend, played by Barry Foster.

Other members of the cast include Barbara Leigh-Hunt, whom I once saw on stage in the 80s, Anna Massey, Jean Marsh, Vivien Merchant and Alec McCowen. All very good actors, and there is one superb moment of film-making when we see Marsh enter the office of her boss, Leigh-Hunt. We know the latter has been murdered, but are made to wait before Marsh discovers the body, and we hear her scream. Very clever, but there are also some lapses of taste (I know taste is very subjective, but I don't think the women characters would be treated in the same way today). There's some nudity and the overall feeling I had is that Hitchcock was trying to "get with it", but with only limited success.

Apparently La Bern hated the film, which was not an uncommon reaction among writers whose work Hitchcock adapted. I felt the film was too long, and that its length blunted its edge. We also never really understand the killer's psychology. But - and it is a big but - I also feel it would be a mistake to dismiss this film as a failure. It's interesting and watchable even with its faults.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Run, Lola, Run - film review

Story structure is a subject that fascinates me, and this is what led me to watch Run, Lola, Run, a 1998 film shot in Berlin and written and directed by Tom Tykwer. Intriguing and original, this film really gripped me from start to finish. It deals with a number of themes, but above all it addresses the question of how chance events can have a profound effect on lives. This is a subject tackled very well by the hugely enjoyable Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, and Run, Lola, Run is just as good.

Franka Polenta plays Lola, a feisty and charismatic young woman whose dodgy boyfriend has made a total mess of his part in a crime. He's lost a lot of money as a result, and the bad guys are just about to find out, and make him pay. They are likely to show up in twenty minutes. Lola tells him, in effect, not to panic. She will sort things out and dash over to meet him within that timescale.

We are supplied with three different versions of what happens on Lola's run. In each of the stories, she encounters the same people, but the outcomes differ strikingly. The compressed timescale, pulsating soundtrack and the sight of Lola dashing frantically through the streets of Berlin keeps the viewer gripped. What is going to happen this time? The boyfriend is a rather pathetic loser, and Lola has a crazy streak,but never mind. We want a happy ending - of course we do. Unfortunately, it's not always available.

This is one of the best foreign films I've seen in a long time. As long as you buy into the premise, it's engaging from start to finish. Polenta is terrific, and the variations in the storylines (which have many connecting elements) are compelling. If you needed any reminder about the lottery element in life's big decisions, Run, Lola, Run supplies it. I found this a really thought-provoking film, and I can strongly recommend it.