Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Top 10 Golden Age novels

Here, as promised, is my highly subjective and apt-to-change-in-the-blink-of-an-eye list of top ten favourite Golden Age detective novels. I've imposed some limitations - just one book per author, and I've focused on detection rather than psychological crime (hence, no room for the wonderful Malice Aforethought.) I've tended to choose books that were in some way very original. Mike Linane made a very good suggestion that I should pick novels that are not too difficult to obtain, and I've gone part of the way to doing this. The Hull book, for instance, was an old green Penguin that you often find in second hand bookshops or at book fairs, although I can't claim that it's very easy to find. The King book was republished by Collins Crime Club in the 80s, and again is not terribly rare. So I hope anyone who wants to track them down will be able to do so, even if it takes a bit of perseverance. Next week, however, I shall develop a theme which Mike put in my mind by listing ten Golden Age books that are very obscure, but in my opinion undeservedly so.

Finally, I should say that, to show how difficult this game is, I changed my mind several times during the course of writing this post. And I'll probably change it a few more times as I'm reminded of classics I've overlooked...

10. The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr - I'm a great fan of "impossible crime" mysteries, and Carr wrote several superb examples. Hard to choose just one, but I did admire this mystery.

9. Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare - several of Hare's books appeared as late as the Fifties,but like Christie's and that of Edmund Crisipin and Christianna Brand, his work belongs in spirit to the Golden Age. This is a classic study of law and crime. Very unusual.

8. Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull - a strangely under-estimated book by a writer who was always trying something different. Very clever twist on the idea of the courtroom drama.

7. Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding - a wonderfully original serial killer whodunit, with a great twist and terrific seaside setting.

6. Obelists Fly High by C. Daly King - King wrote barmily implausible books, but this one is written with such gusto, and has such a detailed "clue finder" that I find it impossible not to include it in my list.

5. Trent's Last Case by E.C. Bentley - this is the book that was the catalyst for the Golden Age school of writers, and it's really very well done. Elegant and memorable.

4. Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers - I find it very hard to pick my favourite Sayers book. They all seem flawed to me - but usually because she was so admirably ambitious. The Nine Tailors and The Documents in the Case are really good too. I'm not a member of the Gaudy Night fan club, I'm afraid, even though again I respect what Sayers was trying to achieve.

3. Lonely Magdalen by Henry Wade - a police story, and much darker than most Golden Age books. But very impressive, and a landmark title in terms of police procedure mysteries.

2. The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley - witty and clever, this is a masterly example of the multiple solution detective mystery. Both Sayers and Christie loved it, and so do I.

1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie - as I said on Monday, this one is simply unbeatable in my opinion...

Monday, 28 July 2014

Top Agatha Christies

I've been interested in two discussions in recent days on that perenially entertaining (if subjective and inconclusive) topic of "favourite books". Those excellent bloggers Christine Poulson and Clothes in Books started a thoughtful discussion about five favourite Agatha Christies, while Mike Linane, a very knowledgable Golden Age fan, drew attention on Facebook to the thoughts of yet another leading blogger, Crimeficlover, on "top ten Golden Age novels." I couldn't resist the temptation to join in. So today I'll focus on Christie. Thoughts on ten favourites from the Golden Age will follow on Wednesday. As Christine and others have said, however, not only do different people make different choices, one's own views tend to shift on these selections. And I expect mine will before long!

With Christie, however, I'm going to vary things a bit. I really want to choose six titles, rather than five (and I was very tempted to go for ten.) In reverse order, then:

6. Five Little Pigs - this is a Christie that I first read when I was young, and it didn't work especially well for me at the tender age of about nine. I was persuaded by the late Robert Barnard to revise my opinions, and I now think that the image of the murderer watching the victim die is one of the most chilling in  Golden Age literature.

5. Cards on the Table - this is a very clever story, and it's one of those Christies (Three-Act Tragedy, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and The Sittaford Mystery are others) which strike me as surprisingly under-rated. The idea of confining the suspects to just four is a good one, and the detective work is very nicely done. Even though I don't like bridge, I've always enjoyed this book.

4. Peril at End House - a brilliant spin on a device that is now rather familiar. The clueing is excellent, and the way that suspicion shifts from one person to another - for me, that's one of the tests of a Golden Age classic - is splendidly done. I like the seaside setting, and Poirot and Hastings are in great form.

3. Curtain - because this book was posthumously published at a time when "mere ingenuity" was unfashionable, its cleverness has, I think, generally been under-rated. The central idea is fantastic and it influenced my otherwise very different book, Take My Breath Away. An extraordinary book in many ways, not least because of what Poirot does near the end.

2. The ABC Murders - the best Golden Age serial killer whodunit, and a book whose plot twist has inspired many other wirters, past and present. A gripping mystery, with neat clues and a level of tension and suspense that Christie surpassed only once, in my number one choice.

1. And Then There Were None - I've written several times about my admiration for this book. It is in many ways the ultimate Golden Age whodunit, and yet neither Poirot nor Marple appear. It was one of the first adult novels I ever read, and it made a lasting impression on me.

Yet somehow I've omitted The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder is Easy, Murder at the Vicarage, and Murder on the Orient Express. And... well, go on, then - what are your favourites?

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Lookalike - movie review

The Lookalike is a very recent film - so recent, in fact, that I've not read any reviews of it. I wondered if this was a bad sign, and the fact that the cast was completely unknown to me (this is probably just my ignorance, as the actors do a very good job) didn't help. My anxieties were compounded when I gleaned that it's a story with a plot which revolves around drug dealing. I read a report of an inquest into the death of someone who died from a drug overdose recently, and found the sheer waste of lie and potential to be very sad, and deeply depressing. Drug dealers in films may be marginally less repellent than their real life equivalents, but I usually find stories, whether in the form of a novel or a screenplay, about their world utterly unappealing. So why did I decide to give the film a try?

I suppose it's because I'm fascinated by stories about identity, and the idea of lookalikes is one that has interested me for a long time. Similarly, I'm very interested in twins, especially identical twins, and the very close bond that exists between them. Some of the most interesting books and films I know concern mysteries of identity of one kind or another. I recently watched again an early episode of Taggart that made clever use of the notion of identical twins  - though during the Golden Age, Ronald Knox made clear his disapproval of plots that relied on the cheap trickery of introducing a character's twin at the last minute.

Rather to my surprise, I found The Lookalike to be, on the whole, a gripping and entertaining story. It's also convoluted, in a way that I found unexpectedly satisfying. I don't want to say too much about it for fear of giving the main twists away, but briefly two brothers who need to make money in a hurry get involved, separately, with two attractive women, whilst at the same time becoming embroiled in a scam with two very unpleasant gangsters.

One of the gangsters has accidentally killed an attractive young woman who was to be used in a sordid money-making scheme. They need to find her lookalike in order to make sure that the money comes in, and one of the brothers is given the job of finding the unlucky woman. I felt that one character behaved in a self-sacrificing way that was, to me, unbelievable, and this did weaken the film's impact. Nevertheless, it kept me watching from start to finish, and wondering how things would turn out. .Not a masterpiece, but not bad, either.

Chris Peers

I have received a message from Bob Adey, doyen of locked room experts, telling me that Chris Peers, a second hand book dealer specialising in crime fiction has just died. I don't know any more than that, but I'd like to take this opportunity to express my shock and dismay at the news, and offer condolences to his family. Chris, who I believe was in his mid-fifties, was a familiar figure at second hand book fairs up and down the country, and he will be much missed.

I've bought quite a few books from Chris over the years - his prices were always reasonable. These included Nightmare by Lynn Brock, a book I've never seen anywhere else before or since, and which I'd never even heard of prior to having a chat with Chris at Ilkley Book Fair a couple of years ago. It proved to be a fascinating and extraordinary novel, a genuine one-off that deserves to be better known.

Chris also gave me some help in my researches about the Golden Age. The last time we met was at a book fair in Haydock last autumn, and he was in excellent form. Chris, like me, was a Manchester City fan who had supported the team through many dark days and who, like me, and most long-suffering City fans of similar vintage, could not quite bring himself to believe that City are currently the most successful team in Britain. We had a long chat about soccer at Haydock, as well as about Golden Age fiction,and of course I never imagined it would be the last time we'd speak.

There is a small community of second hand book dealers in Britain who specialise in crime fiction, and very friendly people they are too. Part of the pleasure for me of visiting a book fair is the chance to catch up with them,and also pick their brains about the Golden Age - as well as about the life of a second hand book dealer, research that comes in very handy when I'm writing about Marc Amos in the Lake District Mysteries. Many of the Forgotten Books that I feature are bought from this group of dealers - The Young Vanish, featured yesterday, for instance, came from the always reliable Jamie Sturgeon. This small community has lost a good man, and it's a sad day.


Friday, 25 July 2014

Forgotten Book - The Young Vanish

Today's Forgotten Book is a strange mystery novel with a strange title - it is The Young Vanish, by Francis Everton. The author explains in a prefatory note that there is in real life an inn called The Young Vanish, located in Glapwell, Derbyshire. However, the inn with the same name that features in the book is not based on it. A Google search revealed to me that The Young Vanish is still going strong today, and boasts a popular carvery. I really must sample it one day. But the book, like its author, has (perhaps appropriately, given the title) ...vanished from sight.

And that really is a pity,because although this is an eccentric book, it has plenty of plus points. For a start, the writing is, although not consistent, at times of a genuinely high standard - much better than you find in many mysteries of the Golden Age. This novel came out in 1932, and it's significant that Arnold Bennett and Dorothy L. Sayers both had a lot of time for Everton's work. Here there is a brilliant, bad-tempered, ugly little cop called Inspector Allport, who is a wonderful and memorable character. And there is plenty of action, along with many unexpected developments.

But it really is a strange story. which begins with a series of killings of trade union officials with moderate views. Is a right wing serial killer involved, or are sinister Russians to blame? I wondered if I'd stepped into an anti-Bolshie polemic, and certainly the author was no fan of socialism (or indeed of the Liberal Party, to judge by his acerbic portrayal of one Liberal MP), but the story keeps moving on in fresh directions.

The name Francis Everton concealed the identity of a businessman called Francis Stokes, who, I learn from the invaluable GADetection site, was an engineer and managing director, later chairman, of a Mansfield company called Stokes Castings Limited. You'd guess Stokes' background from this story, since it contains a good deal of stuff about engineering, the technical aspects of which went right over my head. But he cleverly integrates his know-how with the plot, and one character announces: "it is the first occasion on which metallurgical and spectographic analysis has been called in the aid of the Law." Quite apart from its storyline with a "metallurgical fingerprint", this is a highly distinctive book in many ways. My guess is that business concerns distracted Everton from his literary career, but that's a pity, because he had plenty of talent and a taste for the unusual that is rather refrehsiing. Yes, this book is flawed, in some ways, but it's very interesting indeed. I enjoyed it a lot, and I'm really glad I stumbled across it.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Writer's Life - continued....

A couple of months ago, I wrote about my decision to move out of partnership in a law firm, and focus increasingly on my life as a writer, while continuing to work on average a couple of days a week as a solicitor. I said I'd offer occasional updates about how this transition was working, and here is the first...

Coincidence it may be, but a number of good things have happened to me since I made the switch. A few days ago, the Amazon Summer Sale began, and for the first time one of my novels, The Frozen Shroud, was available at the bargain price of 99p. Hurry now while stocks last is the message! Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book suddenly zoomed up the charts. So much so, in fact, that at the time of writing is number 2 in the "international crime and mystery bestseller list", though I have to admit, I'm not very familiar with these lists, or how significant they are. I'd be interested to know the views of other readers and writers about these Kindle sales - how much of an impact do they really make, and are they worth while. My assumption is the answers are "some" and "yes", but I don't know for sure.

I've also been interviewed by two very pleasant fellow writers and bloggers.Valerie Holmes has just published her interview with me, and another, by Christine Poulson, will appear in due course. I've also featured on the Crime Readers' Association site masterminded by Lucy Santos. And I've fitted in a brief but very enjoyable trip to the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, as well as attending the CWA Daggers Dinner.

These are all the sort of things I might have done before my career move, but one thing that is very different is that I've signed quite a startling number of contracts lately with regard to writing projects of various kinds. Some of these are small scale - intros to books - while others are medium scale - you can look forward to no fewer than six, and perhaps more, anthologies that I'm about to edit, over the next eighteen months, if the prospect isn't just too much to bear! (I hope it won't seem unbearable, because these are anthologies that I'm very excited about.) And I've also embarked on a large scale project which I will tell you more about on another day.

I wouldn't have had the freedom to do all of these things in the past. I'd have done as many as I could, but I am enjoying the sense of liberation enormously. Admittedly, the "two days a week" consultancy hasn't quite happened as yet - I've been working longer hours than that on legal stuff to date, mainly due to an unforeseen flurry of work. But it's bound to fluctuate, and at least I don't have to trek into the office as often. And there are other bonuses that come from a reduction in commuting. For instance, yesterday was about the hottest day of the year, and I spent lunch on the balcony, watching two swans chug around on the water, accompanied by three cygnets, and dinner following the flight path of a heron that swooped around before settling back in a tree to contemplate the world. I can't easily describe how pleasurable it is to be doing that instead of being cooped up in an office all day, the way I've spent the last thirty-odd summers. The writer's life has ups and downs, but the ups are pretty good, it seems to me.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Melodie Johnson Howe and Roderick Ramage

Today I'd like to highlight two very different books by two people whom I've known and liked for a number a years. First, Melodie Johnson Howe, whom I've mentioned once or twice before on the blog. She's an actor and writer of excellent short stories which have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but I must confess that I've never come across her novels before. That's changed, though, with City of Mirrors, which is sub-titled A Hollywood Murder Mystery. The title comes from a telling line: "If you want a friend in Hollywood, get a mirror."

Melodie has used her acting knowledge to create a very appealing series character called Diana Poole, and her inside knowledge of the seemingly glamorous world of the movies is deployed her to very good effect. "Hollywood is like smog", Diana reflects at one point, "it moves and settles wherever it wants to." In this book, Diana is at an age where the ageism of the movie world works against her, but she is not someone to give up, either in her acting life or when, not for the first time, she stumbles upon murder - this time, the victim is a fellow actor. On Melodie's impressive website you can also hear her EQMM podcast of story with the excellent title "The Talking Dead".

Roderick Ramage is a leading employment and pensions lawyer who worked as a member of my team for more years than either of us care to remember. Like another former colleague, Paul Clarke, he has now ventured into criminal territory. Perhaps I'm leading good men astray, but I must say I'm delighted by what Paul and Roderick have done. Roderick's book has been produced by a small press, and I invited him to say a bit about Mid-Stafford Murders:

"In 95 of 109 pages, one murder for each month of the year is intended to enable Stafford to compete with Midsomer’s murder rate.  In this book are sixteen deaths and one attempted murder.  None of the twelve chapters, one for each month, is connected to any other, except that, in half of them, an ordinary, commonplace (except for those involved) accident, such as might be reported in a local newspaper, is given an improbable backstory and turned into an implausible murder.  The stock of accidental deaths exhausted, the remaining months, to complete the year, are filled with one whodunit (a title called Miss Marple must have a body, prone with a knife in it), incidentally the only chapter without a solution, two with obviously deliberate deaths, one in which two youngster kill each other in a real world acting-out of a computer game, one, helped by a haunted chair, retells a real unsolved crime and another, the stock of deaths being exhausted, is a failed attempt by a resentful motorist to give the elderly driver of a beaten up old Land Rover his just deserts by blowing up the Land Rover.  In only the failed attempt do the police get their man.  The last of the twelve, actually April, tells of the suicide of a teenage girl as a result of Facebook bullying.  This story might be believed, so, in an appendix, the story is retold and its unhappy ending is averted by a love letter. Pages 96 to the end contain the epilogue, a catalogue of the settings of the stories and location maps."

Roderick's book costs £9 plus £1.50 postage in the UK, and is available from 
Etica Press Ltd
The Baskervilles
147 Worcester Road
Malvern       WR14 1ET
info@eticapress.com
or
Roderick Ramage
Copehale
Coppenhall
Stafford       ST18 9BW
roderick@copehale.net




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."