Friday, 3 July 2015

James Ellroy and The Golden Age of Murder

Do you find the heading of this post a little...counter-intuitive? I couldn't blame you if you did. I must say that I was surprised a few months ago to receive an invitation to be a guest speaker at an academic conference on the subject of "James Ellroy - Visions of Noir" and even more surprised when I was asked to talk about The Golden Age of Murder. But they were pleasant surprises, and I readily accepted. And I'm really glad I did.

The conference, which was held on Thursday, took place in Liverpool University, in a splendid library in Abercrombie Square. The organiser, Steven Powell, is an academic, and is the author of a book about James Ellroy which will appear later this year. His wife is a fellow academic and she was among the other speakers. And a keynote address came from Woody Haut, author of (among other things, including most recently a novel, with another on the way) Heartbreak and Vine. That's a very good book, by the way, and never having met Woody before, I was delighted to have the chance to chat with him and to ask him to sign my copy.

So - Martin Edwards and James Ellroy? Detection Club archivist meets Demon Dog? Well, my enthusiasm for Golden Age books should not mask the fact that my taste in crime fiction is pretty broad, and in the late 80s and early 90s I read Ellroy's Brown's Requiem and the L.A. Quartet with a great deal of enthusiasm. When he gave a talk in Manchester, I went along,and had a brief and pleasant chat with him while, you guessed it, he signed my copies of his books. After My Dark Places, I'm afraid I lost touch with Ellroy's work, and what I heard about The Cold Six Thousand, for instance, didn't encourage me to read it. But there's no doubt.that he is a significant writer.

When Steven interviewed me about The Golden Age of Murder, I didn't attempt to draw parallels between Ellroy and the likes of Freeman Wills Crofts, but I was pleased with the reaction from the attendees, and enjoyed their questions. I was also encouraged to hear that my book is not regarded with disdain by literary academics. In fact, Steven wrote a very kind blog post about it recently. One of the reasons I'm heartened by such a response is that I'm very conscious that I'm not an academic, and my book isn't an academic text. No footnotes, and endnotes that are at least as much about fun facts as relentless detail about sources. I wasn't aiming at an academic readership at all, but it's good to know that even those whose approach to literature is rather more sophisticated than mine can find plenty to enjoy in the story of the Detection Club's early days.

The day ended splendidly with a meal in one of Liverpool's snazzier restaurants. I was glad to chat with people from distant parts - a German expert on Ellroy who kindly presented me with a copy of her book about his work, and a Brazilian academic who is another Ellroy expert. My warmest congratulations to the Powells for organising it all so well, and I look forward to talking more about Steven's book in the autumn.

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Late Pig

The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham was first published in 1937, and I suppose there is room for debate as to whether it really qualifies as a Forgotten Book. After all, Allingham's reputation has survived much better than that of many Golden Age writers, and the Margery Allingham Society is a flourishing body, with an excellent journal and a range of activities for members. What I can say is that this is a short novel (it began life as a paperback original, and a UK hardback edition didn't appear for more than a quarter of a century) which definitely deserves to be remembered. It offers more entertainment than many much longer efforts.

An unusual feature of the book is that it's narrated by Albert Campion. An ambitious move on Allingham's part, I think, because Great Detectives aren't naturally suited to recounting their own cases - Sherlock Holmes seems to me to have been a noticeably less effective narrator than Dr Watson, for instance. It's maddening enough when a sleuth (Poirot, for example) declines to tell his sidekick whom he suspects and why. The risk of frustrating the reader is much greater when the detective is actually telling the story. Christie was wise, I think, not to have Poirot or Miss Marple act as narrators. Perhaps Allingham was experimenting -she did not repeat this particular experiment in another novel. And yet here, I think, she gets away with it, and does so rather stylishly.

A mysterious unsigned missive persuades Campion to attend the funeral of the late and unlamented "Pig" Peters, with whom he was at school. But the plot really starts to thicken five months later, when Campion returns to the splendidly named village of Kepesake. There has been another death - but this time, once again, the deceased is Pig Peters. What on earth is going on?

This is a splendid village mystery, neatly plotted and with plenty of twists. It's a very good example of Allingham's technical skill as a writer - she was able to vary her approach with much more flair and success than most Golden Age novelists, and this is, surely, one of the reasons why her work has lasted so well. I enjoyed The Case of the Late Pig - and the TV version, starring Peter Davison as Campion, which I saw some time ago, isn't at all bad, either.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward - review

In Bitter Chill is a first novel by Sarah Ward, best known hitherto for her excellent blog Crime Pieces. The book is published by Faber, which is in itself a hallmark of quality, and I must say that I think it's a very satisfying book, judged by any standards, let alone those applicable to a debut. I should also say that Sarah is someone I've known and liked for several years, but I would not enthuse about this novel in the way that I do unless I genuinely found it to my taste.

The story is set in a fictional Derbyshire town, Bampton. Derbyshire is a wonderful county, one I know and love (I've also had the mixed blessing of supporting the county's cricket team since I was young; this has at least proved character-building, given the team's propensity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory...) Until now, Stephen Booth, a very capable author indeed, has been the leading writer of Derbyshire crime, but Sarah's writing is in the same league. They both produce well-crafted traditional mysteries with credible police officers and good descriptions of landscape..

I'm conscious that one has to be wary of comparing one writer with another, but the other comparison that did cross my mind when reading this book was with Ann Cleeves. Ann has a gift for combing her well-plotted mysteries with sound evocation of character and place, a gift that amazingly was long under-estimated before the massive success of Vera and Shetland caused her to receive her well-deserved international acclaim.I don't expect Sarah to have to wait as long for widespread recognition. She is, like Ann, someone whose work demonstrates an understanding of human frailty, but also a good deal of compassion, a combination that is very appealing to many readers.

The plot involves a "cold case" in a cold climate. Back in 1978, two girls went missing, and only one returned. A death in the present day causes the local police to start reconsidering what happened. The kidnapping of the girls might seem reminiscent of Brady and Hindley at work, but the storyline is very different from the tragedy of the Moors Murders, though it is certainly not without bleakness. A really good read.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Patti Abbott - guest blog

Blog readers will be very familiar with the name of Patti Abbott, who got the Friday Forgotten Books feature going a few years ago. A blog gives a clue to its writer's personality, and hers is a very engaging blog indeed, always a first class read. I'm delighted to host a guest post from her about her new book, Concrete Angel:

"I grew up in Philadelphia in the fifties and sixties so when I began to think about writing a novel, (after writing well over a hundred short stories) it seemed right to set in there and then. I think you have an almost sensate relationship with the time and place you grew up in that you never quite experience again.  I know I could walk into my childhood home and identify it by the smell alone.

My novel centers on two characters: Eve and Christine Moran, a mother and daughter. Eve is half a generation older than me and Christine more than half a generation younger. I wanted to look at Christine's childhood through my adult eyes rather than fall too much into reliving the years of my own youth.

My favorite parts of the book are the ones that lean heavily on the Philadelphia of the sixties and early seventies: what is was like to live in a 750 square foot row house, what is was like to go downtown to shop dressed in white gloves and high heels, how it felt taking a trolley car when they still existed, what working in a glamorous store was like, how closely you were observed in neighborhoods like that.

Of course, Concrete Angel is essentially a very dark book so I couldn't allow my memories of a happy childhood to prevail too often. Almost all of the details about Eve and Christine mirror a childhood friend and her mother. Their story was a dark one two and their co-dependency was much like Eve and Christine's. Both are gone now so I had no worry about them reading it.

Thanks, Martin, for allowing me to discuss the book's setting here. My next book is set in Detroit, where I have lived since leaving Philadelphia." 

Friday, 26 June 2015

Forgotten Book - Eleven

Continuing my exploration of the work of Patricia Highsmith, I recently re-read Eleven, which I came across originally in the Seventies - it was published in 1970, and is a collection of eleven short stories, with a foreword by Graham Greene. In comparison to her better known work, it's a book that I think does count as a Forgotten Book, but it shouldn't be. I admired it when I first read it, and I was even more impressed the second time around.

Greene says, rightly I think, that Highsmith is "a poet of apprehension rather than fear" - in fact he relates this specifically to her novel The Tremor of Forgery, which he greatly admired, and which I discussed a few Fridays ago. He praises her short stories warmly, pointing out - which I hadn't realised before - that some in this book were written even before her first published novel, Strangers on a Train. As he says, "we have no sense that she is learning her craft". He picks out "When the Fleet Was In at Mobile" as his favourite, and it's certainly a poignant story, as well as being as dark as the other ten in the book.

Where I might part company with Graham Greene is in his remark that readers may sometimes be able to brush her stories off more easily than her novels, because their brevity means that we haven't lived long enough with them to be totally absorbed. For me, Highsmith is at least as brilliant a short story writer as a novelist. In fact, I'm tempted to say that her gifts were even better suited to the short form. I doubt whether this is a widely shared view, but I think it's no coincidence that, as her career wore on, she struggled to come up with dazzling new ideas for novels - returning to Tom Ripley time and again, for instance, and repeating some themes of earlier books - whereas she continued to write very memorable short stories. For my taste (and judging her by high standards), some of her weaker novels drag a bit. This isn't the case with her short stories..

Certainly, Eleven is full of dazzling, haunting stories. Two feature snails, and one a terrapin, but each is unique and splendid. "The Quest for Blank Claveringi", in particular, is one of the most horrific and gripping stories you could wish to find; it really is a horror story, but it also tells us something about human nature, in Highsmith's customary subtle way.  There isn't one story in the eleven that is anything less than excellent.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Bodies from the Library

Not so long ago, to suggest that a group of volunteers could set up from scratch a conference about Golden Age fiction that would attract a large and near sell-out audience at one of the country's most prestigious venues would have seemed fanciful. Yet that is exactly what happened with the Bodies from the Library conference at the British Library on Saturday. And the first thing to say about the event is that Mike, John, Mark, Liz, Susan and company who worked so hard to make the dream a reality deserve the utmost praise. The event was a huge success.

I was glad to be heavily involved with the day's events. First, Jake Kerridge and I talked about what and when was the Golden Age, and later in the morning Simon Brett and I discussed the Detection Club, including its collaborative books. In the final session, all the participants talked about books they thought ripe for a reprint - I sneaked in several titles, though my ultimate choice was Raymond Postgate's Verdict of Twelve. Simon, witty as ever, suggested that I'd contrived the whole event as a grandiose launch for The Golden Age of Murder, and really it was wonderful to sign so many copies . But there was much else to celebrate.

Barry Pike, doyen of Golden Age experts, spoke about Sayers and Allingham, and it was also a great pleasure for me to meet for the first time John Cooper, another great expert, who co-authored with Barry two superb and lavishly illustrated books, Collecting Detective Fiction and Artists in Crime. Both strongly recommended. Other speakers included John Curran on Christie, Dolores Gordon-Smith on Crofts, Tony Medawar on locked room mysteries, and Len Tyler on modern day GA fiction. Along with America's Doug Greene and Marv Lachman, Barry, John and Tony have done so much for so many years to keep the flag flying for GA fiction, and the audience loved listening to them.

That wasn't all. Richard Reynolds discussed Oxbridge crime, and we also listened to a John Dickson Carr radio play. David Brawn of Harper Collins and Rob Davies of the BL discussed editing issues with GA fiction; I very much enjoy working with both David and Rob and they were the ideal choices for that particular panel.

The social side of these events is always important, and I was delighted to meet a number of people for the first time with whom I've corresponded in the past. In fact, the only snag was that there simply wasn't enough time to have much of a chat with the many interesting people who were there. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that the buzz in the Library was fantastic, and that everyone hopes the event can be held again next year.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Detection Club Presidency

I've returned home after an exhilarating few days in London, with a number of highlights, including Saturday's superbly organised and hugely successful Bodies from the Library conference. More about that in a day or so, but today I'll focus on an item of news that I've kept under my hat for several months, but which became public knowledge over the week-end.

One of the events at the conference saw Simon Brett and I talking about the Detection Club. Simon has been President of the Club for fourteen years, and as he mentioned on Saturday, he made it clear a while ago that he was aiming to retire from office - an office which he has held with much distinction throughout that time. The plan is that he will retire at the next annual dinner of the Club, to be held in November. And the news he announced is that he will be succeeded by.... me.

To say that I am thrilled by this is an under-statement. As far as I'm concerned, in the course of an often very fortunate writing career, it really is the greatest highlight, given my undying enthusiasm for the history and heritage of the crime fiction genre, as well as for its present and its future. Back in February, when a number of members approached me with the suggestion that I become President, I was somewhat astonished as well as very flattered.

Once I had time to take it in, I was also extremely touched and grateful, and among several lovely things that have happened since the members made their decision is that the great Len Deighton, a member of the Club since 1969, generously took me out for a long and hugely enjoyable lunch in London, an occasion which I shall never forget.

Since the Club came into being in 1930, there have only been eight Presidents, one of whom was appointed as a co-President only:

G.K. Chesterton   1930-36
E. C. Bentley        1936-49
Dorothy L. Sayers 1949-57
Agatha Christie     1957-76
Lord Gorell            1957-63 (as co-President, because Christie disliked public speaking)
Julian Symons       1976-85
H.R.F. Keating      1985-2000
Simon Brett           2000 to date

When one looks at that list of very illustrious names, my pleasure is self-explanatory. Yes, you may think that quality control has slipped all of a sudden, but I couldn't possibly comment! My friends and fellow Club members have done me a great honour. Now my first aim is to try to avoid falling under a bus between now and mid-November...

(The photo shows Simon and me at a Detection Club dinner a while ago and was taken by Kate Charles the night she was initiated as a member of the Club.)

Friday, 19 June 2015

Forgotten Book - The House by the River

The House by the River tends to be remembered today - if at all - as a post-war film directed by the brilliant Fritz Lang. But the film was based on a novel written thirty years earlier by A.P. Herbert, and this is today's Forgotten Book. One thing is for sure: it really does not deserve to be forgotten, since it's very well-written, and in some ways well ahead of its time.

This is a novel that is definitely not a whodunit, but a portrait of a murderer. There's a tendency these days for some fans of whodunits to lament the fact that so many crime novels focus on character and setting rather than puzzle. But it's not a new development, as this book illustrates. Herbert focuses on the effect that guilt and moral responsibility for a crime may have on different personalities, and in some ways this novel shows him as a forerunner of the likes of Patricia Highsmith.

The main protagonist is a poet called Stephen Byrne, who lives with his wife and young daughter in a house by the Thames. One night, when Mrs Byrne is out, he makes a clumsy pass at their maid, Emily. One thing leads to another, but not in a good way.Stephen strangles Emily, and has to decide whether to confess his crime, or hide it. He chooses the latter course, and enlists the help of his neighbour and friend, a dour but decent civil servant.

The pair dump poor Emily's body in the river, but inevitably it is discovered. The twist is that John, the hapless chum, rather than Stephen, becomes the prime suspect. Herbert explores their intertwined fates in a way that would, I feel, have impressed Highsmith. I don't know if she ever read this novel,but it is worthy of her. Yes, that good. The Thames, in particular, is evocatively described, but there are also some very good snapshots of the supporting cast. All in all, a book that ought to be better known. John Norris, that very well-read blogger, is a fan of this novel, and as usual, his judgment is spot on.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A Tale of Three Islands

Cumbria is a large county, and there is more to it than the Lake District. Whilst my series is set in the Lakes, I feel that it wouldn't be realistic to confine the activities of the county's cold case team to the Lakes, and therefore I'm keen to keep an eye on other locations. That, plus idle curiosity, prompted me to visit Barrow-in-Furness on the way back from Carlisle the other day, and in particular to take a look at the islands just off the Furness peninsula.

Walney Island is by far the largest of those islands, and it's linked to the docks area of Barrow by a substantial bridge. Many of the houses on the island were originally built for people who worked on the dock, but although there's an industrial (verging on post-industrial) feel to part of the area, there are also two nature reserves and some wonderful views. There's also a great pub at Biggar, The Queen's Arms, where the locals went to some trouble to give me directions to Piel Island.

You reach Piel via Roa Island, which is itself accessed by a causeway from the mainland. At the end of Piel Street, there is a huge lifeboat station, and a long jetty for the ferry to Piel. Piel was given to the people of Barrrow after the First World War, and the ferryman was none other than Steve, the King of Piel.

Piel has a marvellous history. The monks of Furness Abbey built what is now known as Piel Castle (not to be confused with Peel Castle on the Isle of Man) and it's in the care of English Heritage. The ruins are extremely impressive. We were stranded on the island for a couple of house, because of the tides, but this was no hardship. It's pleasant to walk around the ruins, to admire the views, and to sample the hospitality of the Ship Inn.

The King of Piel is the landlord of the Ship Inn, and his throne is on display (see below.) The story goes that if anyone sits n it, they have to buy drinks all round. It's an absolutely fascinating place, and I found the trip truly exhilarating. Steve told me that he's thinking of writing his memoirs. I bet they would be well worth reading, and I'd be in the queue to buy a copy. I was left wondering how to fit Piel Island into my next Lakes book. There has to be a way....

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Silloth and Ideas

Long-time readers of this blog will know that, when possible, I like to combine my work at crime fiction festivals and other events with some sight-seeing and research. At present, I'm in the midst of a flurry of festivals - three in nine days - but when en route for Carlisle last week, I thought I really must take advantage of the wonderful weather to have a look at the Lake District and also at a part of Cumbria that I hadn't seen before

I've wanted to take a look at Silloth for a long time. It's a proposed trip I discussed some years ago with Maxine Clarke- many blog readers will remember Maxine fondly for her Petrona blog. Maxine was a lovely person, who knew Silloth very well, and recommended me to go there. It's a little resort on the Solway coast, and it appealed to me in the way that old resorts usually do. As a bonus, you can look across the water and see the Scottish coast, not that far away. Whilst I was there, I thought back to my all too infrequent get togethers with Maxine, who died far too young. She is much missed.

Something unexpected happened whilst I was at Silloth. I'd been playing around with an idea for a historical story, and that was in my mind when I set off up the motorway. But whilst I was wandering along the promenade, an idea came to me - unbidden - about a new mystery involving Daniel Kind. This particular puzzle strikes me as a very suitable sub-plot for the next Lake District Mystery.

All authors struggle to answer the question "where do you find your ideas?" but my experience is that ideas often come when you don't try to force them. Holidays, when the brain relaxes, are an ideal opportunity for ideas to come drifting into one's head. And the same is true of trips like my visit to Cumbria. I certainly enjoyed my first sight of Silloth, and there's every chance that the place will feature in the next Lakes book as a result..And the same is true of another place I'll talk about tomorrow....