Monday, 20 November 2017

Agatha Christie's Very Secret Notebook

Agatha Christie's secret notebooks - the private journals in which she jotted down her ideas for stories, shot to fame some years ago, when Harper Collins published John Curran's fascinating book about them. What nobody seems to have realised at the time was that there was another notebook out there which was in private hands. It was sold at auction many years ago to an American collector for the princely sum of £240 plus commission. It's now come to light again, having been acquired by James Hallgate of Lucius Books in York,

There are some very delightful book dealers around, both here and in the US, and in recent years I've had the pleasure of getting to know quite a few of them. I have to be careful, because naturally they are inclined to lure me into making fresh purchases for my collection! But I find their company very enjoyable, and not only because they supply me with books, information, and background material for my portrayal of Marc Amos and his second hand bookshop in the Lake District Mysteries (though Marc definitely isn't based on anyone in real life!)

James Hallgate very kindly gave me the opportunity, some time ago, to look at the Christie journal shortly after he'd acquired it, and before he put it on the market. I must say it was a great thrill as well as a great privilege to pore over this fascinating item. Christie jotted her thoughts down casually and, seemingly, carelessly, but if one reads her (not very easy to decipher) handwriting, it's possible to discern her thought processes as she develops her storylines. This journal focuses on one of her finest post-war novels, A Murder is Announced, and it features one of her most cunning clues. There are also extensive notes about the play Spider's Web and other Christie works of the period.

I'm really grateful to James for giving me this memorable experience, and I readily agreed not to write about it until he was ready to market the journal. That time has now come, and I'm also appreciative of the photos that he's supplied to adorn this post. If you want to start saving up for a very special present for that Christie fan in your life, I'm afraid you will have to dig very deep indeed. The price of the journal, housed in a bespoke case, is a mere £45,000. Bargain! Alas, I won't be in the market on this occasion, but others definitely will be,and let's face it, it's a snip compared to a Leonardo. I hope very much the notebook finds a suitable home and that it doesn't altogether disappear from public view for years to come. Like the other Christie journals,it provides a wonderful insight into the workings of the mind of one of the genre's most innovative superstars.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Undercover Agent aka Counterspy - 1953 film review

As I settled down to watch another of the long-forgotten films that have been resurrected on the excellent Talking Pictures TV channel, I was startled to see on the titles that the screenplay was based on a short story by Julian Symons. The film, Undercover Agent, is also known as Counterspy, and was released in 1953. The story it was based on is called "Criss Cross Code", but I'm unfamiliar with it, and I now plan to set about tracking it down.

Nobody ever thinks of Symons as writing espionage fiction, as the film's titles would suggest, although a few of his early short stories (and this one must have been among his very earliest) touch on international intrigue. The film is a thriller, and although it's creaky in parts, the screenplay is a lively one, co-written by Guy Elmes and Gaston Lazare (the latter name sounds as though it may possibly have been a pseudonym - I can't trace any of Lazare's other work).

The cast is a cut above the average for a British B-movie. Dermot Walsh, later to play Richard the Lionheart in a popular TV series of that name, improbably plays a meek but persistent auditor, who is called in to look over the books of a company where some mischief is afoot. His wife is played by Hazel Court, who was at the time married to Walsh in real life. The principal villain is played by Alexander Gauge, memorable in the role of Friar Tuck in the TV series Robin Hood. Here, Gauge acts rather like a poor man's Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. Hermione Baddeley plays a fortune teller, and even less likely is the casting of Bill Travers - yes, the chap from Born Free - as a brutal thug.

Yet somehow it all makes for agreeable light entertainment, mainly because the pace of the script doesn't allow one time to reflect on the daftness of it all. I'm not sure what Symons would have made of it, and I strongly suspect it bears only a limited resemblance to his story. He probably cringed, but it's no mean feat to have a short story turned into a film, even a comparatively short movie such as this one. An enjoyable curiosity..

Friday, 17 November 2017

Forgotten Book - Turn the Light Out As You Go

Edgar Lustgarten was a Manchester-born barrister with a love of writing who became a famous criminologist and broadcaster. He is best remembered for introducing the Scotland Yard TV series first screened in the Fifties, which has made a welcome reappearance lately on the Talking Pictures TV channel. He wrote extensively on true crime, but he also dabbled occasionally in fiction.

By far his best known novel is A Case to Answer, aka One More Unfortunate, which was widelyu translated and filmed with Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer, but despite the success of that book, he only wrote a handful of novels over the next thirty years. The very last one, Turn The Light Out As You Go, was published in 1978, the year of his death, and it made little or no impact, partly no doubt because by that time Lustgarten was a name from the past.

It's an unusual novel, though, and one that I found very readable, if flawed. It's a short book which may (I don't know) have been based in some respects on a real life case. Certainly, the treatment of the sexual assault and murder of a young girl is presented in a style almost verging on the documentary.

The focus is on the couple who live next door to the dead girl's family. Joe and Elsie are a middle-aged couple whose marriage has become stale. Elsie wonders - without any very substantial grounds - whether Joe might have killed the little girl - and the suspicion proves corrosive. Joe's life embarks on a downward spiral, even though he becomes friendly with one of the policemen working on the case, who doesn't regard him as a likely suspect. Other people come into the frame before a shock ending that wasn't (to my mind) foreshadowed quite as much as it might have been. It's a curious book in several ways, and the portrayal of working class life seemed a bit dated to me, even by the standards of the late Seventies. Lustgarten was not, I think, first and foremost a creative writer. All the same, I found the story interesting as well as unorthodox.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Mystery Tour - Publication Day!

Today sees the publication of Mystery Tour (Orenda Publishing), the latest anthology of the Crime Writers' Association. Of all the anthologies I've edited for the CWA, this one contains more stories (28! got to be good value, right?) than any other. What's more, they are all making their first appearance in print, although Ann Cleeves' contribution has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. The book is available in attractive hardback and paperback editions.

I can't quite believe it myself, but this is the fifth short story collection I've edited this year - the other four were all published by the British Library in the Crime Classics series. And this year also marks the 21st anniversary of my first CWA anthology, Perfectly Criminal, contributors to which included Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. Ian hadn't broken through at that time, but his story went on to win the CWA Short Story Dagger. In my brief intro to it, I said I believed he was destined to become a major force in the genre. One of my more accurate predictions, it's fair to say!

A good many talented writers feature in Mystery Tour, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them featured in the CWA Dagger lists next year. Regardless of that, there is much to be enjoyed in the book, though I say it myself. You're spared individual story intros from me this time, because my focus was on including as many stories as possible - and the book weighs in at a hefty 100,000 words. Among the authors featured are such leading lights as Peter Lovesey and Cath Staincliffe, and also relatively new kids on the block, the likes of Vaseem Khan, Anna Mazzlola and Paul Gitsham. As ever, I've tried to include a very diverse mix of stories, such as the splendidly inventive "Accounting for Murder" by Christine Poulson.

I've dedicated the book to my colleagues on the CWA Board, a small gesture of appreciation for the hard work they put in to taking the CWA forward in a challenging but exciting period of growth and development. I'm not by nature a "committee person", but I must say that the present members of the Board are an absolute pleasure to work with, and their support is invaluable to me as Chair. I hope they are pleased with the book, and I am optimistic that crime fans will find a great deal in it to relish. Crime Time has already described it as "a cherishable collection", and needless to say, it will make a great Christmas present!

Monday, 13 November 2017

After Ten Years of Blogging...'s a good moment to reflect. Actually, the ten-year anniversary was a month ago, but life has been too hectic to allow many moments of reflection. When I started this blog - the first post was on 13 October 2007 - my prime aim was to share my enthusiasm for crime writing. As part of this, I wanted to give  to anyone who was an interested an insight into the joys and frustrations of the professional life of a mid-list crime writer, someone who had been around for quite a long time, without becoming remotely famous. Hence the blog's title. I've often been asked if I write under my name, and it's a polite way of making it clear that the person asking the question has never heard of me.

In 2007, I had no idea of what the future held for me as a writer, but I did tell the story of my first TV option, and the fact that the dizzying excitement  ultimately faded when it became clear that the show would never be made. Ten years on, I've had half a dozen TV options, covering the Harry Devlin series, the Lake District series, and even The Golden Age of Murder, but still none of the scripts has actually made it on to the screen. It's frustrating (though option fees are definitely a consolation), but it's a common situation, and the only sensible reaction is to be philosophical. You can't be lucky all the time. And overall, I've been extraordinarily lucky.

If you'd told me ten years ago what would happen in my writing life over the next decade, I'd have suspected a cruel hoax. Back then, I wasn't even a member of the Detection Club, let alone its President, archivist, and author of The Golden Age of Murder. And I was nowhere near joining the committee of the CWA - my day job made it impossible - let alone becoming its Chair. I'd never won a literary award, and now I've picked up a totally unexpected number here and in the US, as well as various shortlistings. I'd never even set foot in the British Library, whereas in the past year I've been interviewed there by Mark Lawson, conducted a week-end master class there, plotted a murder mystery for their pop-up shop, and compiled my tenth BL anthology, as well as publishing The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books and clocking up more than 40 intros to the Classic Crime series.

The past three years, in particular, have been amazing, and it's hard to figure out exactly what has made the difference. Some of it must be down to the fact that, although I'm still a practising lawyer, I now spend much less time on the law, and much of the energy I devoted to the day job (and endless commuting) is now directed towards writing-related activities. I've found, as many writers found before me, that there are all sorts of fascinating opportunities out there

Since I returned to the UK from the Toronto Bouchercon last month, I've taken part in literary festivals in Lancaster and in Dalton-in-Furness (the ancient capital of Furness might just feature in the next Lake District Mystery!) and given library talks in York, Beeston, and West Bridgford and a bookshop talk in Bramhall. I've  hosted the CWA Daggers Awards and the Detection Club's main annual dinner, survived a CWA board meeting without provoking my admirable colleagues to launch a coup d'etat, enjoyed an excellent lunch with the CWA's Northern Chapter, and given a talk in London to a marvellous group of American crime fans, as well as signing a pile of copies of the CWA anthology Mystery Tour at Goldsboro Books and piles of other books in Foyles and Waterstones. It's been a mad whirl of activity, but hugely enjoyable.

And I hope that if there are any writers, or would-be writers, reading this who are struggling with confidence at present, my story may offer them a bit of encouragement. Despite all the pitfalls, it's a privilege to live a writer's life, and I hate to see talented authors become so discouraged that they give up, something that happens far too often.

Writing is, as I said at the Dagger awards, a tough game, and setbacks are many; even in the past couple of weeks, I've had a couple of projects run into snags. I'm still very, very far from being a Big Name among authors. But surely the point about writing is to try to make the most of your skills and your opportunities, and hope that an occasional lucky break will compensate for all the knock-backs, however numerous the latter. Above all, the key is to have a good time, no matter how many well-meaning people keep wanting to know if you write under your own name!

Friday, 10 November 2017

Forgotten Book - The Announcer

I've talked previously about Donald Henderson, a writer who has long intrigued me. Because he died young, his work fell out of print quite quickly, and he's hardly ever been discussed in reference books (though I do talk about him in The Story of Classic Crime). Recently, I read his 1946 book, The Announcer, and found it extremely enjoyable.

The book's alternative title in the US, and perhaps a better one, was A Voice Like Velvet, which is a phrase taken from the story, concerning the protagonist, Ernest Bisham. He happens to be a BBC radio announcer by day. But he is also, by night....wait for it...a cat-burglar!

As a premise this carries, perhaps a whiff of the absurd, but in a pleasing way. Henderson worked for the BBC, and he has a great deal of fun with his account of BBC life. I'm sure it appealed to his ironic sense of humour to imagine a very correct announcer as a master-criminal. His wit reminds me of Francis Iles, and he shares Iles' interest in true crime: Crippen, Jack the Ripper, and Neil Cream are among the killers name-checked in the story.

Like Iles, Henderson had considerable gifts as a novelist. This is a well-written story, with plenty of nice lines, but he also manages to create suspense in a very pleasing way. I found myself rooting for Ernest even when he behaved foolishly, and especially when he found himself in tricky situations, facing almost certain discovery. This really is a hidden gem.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Lady of Deceit - aka Born to Kill - 1947 film review

Lady of Deceit, also known as Born to Kill was directed by Robert Wise, who much later was responsible for The Sound of Music. Two films more different in tone as well as storyline would be hard to imagine. Lady of Deceit, based on James Gunn's novel Deadlier Than the Male, is a dark story about amoral people, and this may account for the fact that it didn't do particularly well on first release. Uplifting it is not.

Claire Trevor plays Helen Trent, who has gone to Reno to get a divorce. Whilst she's there, she gets to know a breezy young woman who goes out with a new man, much to displeasure of Sam Wild (played by Lawrence Tierney), who is obsessed with her. Wild kills both his ex and her admirer. Helen discovers the bodies, but decides not to get involved, and goes back to San Francisco. At the station, she bumps into Wild, and they fall for each other.

However, Helen is engaged to a rich young chap, much to Wild's displeasure. Helen  is the foster sister of wealthy Georgia, played by Audrey Long (who was married at one time to Leslie Charteris, creator of the Saint). Wild seduces nice but naive Georgia, and they marry, but Wild and Helen remain besotted with each other. Wild's admiring chum Marty (Elisha Cook Jr) joins the not very happy household, and when a friend of Wild's victim hires a lazy and unreliable private eye, Marty tries to protect Wild, before events spin out of control.

Esther Howard, who hires the P.I., is perhaps the most appealing character in the film, not that the competition is strong. She's an alcoholic, but she is trying to do the right thing by her friend. Claire Trevor does a good job as the "iceberg" Helen, but I felt that Lawrence Tierney, who late in life became more famous than ever thanks to appearing in Reservoir Dogs, was wooden in the extreme. He tries to be a tough guy in the Humphrey Bogart style, and apparently was a tough guy in real life. But his lack of charisma is a big drawback. Robert Mitchum would have done a much better job, I feel. All the same, this downbeat movie is watchable from start to finish.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Crime Classics in 2018

The British Library recently published its catalogue for the first six months of next year, and this gives me a chance to talk about some of the titles in the Classic Crime series that will be coming the way of fans of Golden Age fiction before very long. It's an eclectic mix, and one that personally, I'm very pleased with.

I've already mentioned on this blog that I've compiled a new anthology of classic railway mysteries, called Blood on the Tracks. In the past there have been a few railway-themed short story collections, but I've managed to track down some stories that I'm fairly sure will be unfamiliar to the overwhelming majority of readers, as well as some that may be known to aficionados, but deserve a fresh life.

Then there's the republication of Richard Hull. I've talked about Hull's work both on this blog and in The Golden Age of Murder (and, come to that, in The Story of Classic Crime - I guess you could call me a fan!) He was a disciple of Francis Iles, and a very interesting writer indeed. Two of his best books will appear next year: The Murder of My Aunt and Excellent Intentions. I'm pleased to say that, thanks to members of his family, the introductions will contain quite a bit of fresh info about the life of this most creative of crime-writing accountant.

I'm also delighted to say that there will be two books from another writer whom I've championed, E.C. R. Lorac - Bats in the Belfry and Fire in the Thatch. I was introduced to Lorac's work by my parents, who were enthusiastic about her later work, set in Lunedale. These two books were written earlier. Bats in the Belfry has a great setting in London, while Fire in the Thatch, as you might guess, is a rural mystery

Among the authors whose novels are republished in the Classic Crime series are quite a few whom I've long hoped to revive - Anthony Berkeley, Raymond Postgate, Christopher St John Sprigg, Anne Meredith, and Freeman Wills Crofts among them. Hull and Lorac are two more authors whom I really enjoy, and I am optimistic that these reissues will find a highly appreciative new readership.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Forgotten Book - The Gold Star Line

The Gold Star Line, first published in 1899, is a collection of six stories written in collaboration by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace. Their names appear together on the title page, though only Meade's name appears on the front cover and the spine.I don't know if the book ever had a dust jacket. My copy is one that I managed to acquire from a dealer, and its great point of interest is that it has the Detection Club bookplate, and a label pasted into it indicating that Eustace presented it to the Club's library in October 1933. (The library was auctioned off years ago, before I was involved with the Club.)

So Eustace was evidently pleased to be associated with the book, and I'm as sure as I can be that his role was as ideas man. There are at least two stories in the book which have plots turning on points involving medical or scientific expertise, and it's a safe assumption that these were contributed by Eustace. I'd imagine that Meade did all the writing; she was a big name in her day, and a prolific and versatile novelist.

The stories are all narrated by George Conway, purser employed by the Gold Star Line. Conway recounts a series of adventures in which he played a part; much, but by no means all, of the action takes place either on board ship or while the ship has landed somewhere in the course of a voyage. The range of international locations gives the book a cosmopolitan feel, which would have been a good selling point at the time.

Conway is a likeable fellow, but we learn very little about his personal life. For Meade and Eustace, the action is the thing. I found the stories agreeable light (very light) entertainment, and the scientific plot twists in "The Rice-Paper Chart" and "The Yellow Flag" were quite clever. They offer a pleasing glimpse into a vanished world, as well as an example of lively crime fiction at the end of the nineteenth century. Eustace would, of course, go on to further collaborative success more than twenty years later, on that famous short story "The Tea Leaf" (with Edgar Jepson) and on The Documents in the Case with Dorothy L. Sayers.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Consequences of Love - 2004 film review

Consequences of Love is a much-lauded Italian film written and directed by Paola Sorrentino. It takes a while to get going, but the wait for action is worthwhile. This is an inriguing thriller with a poignant ending. The fact that, for most of the film, one really has no idea where it is heading is a good thing. Curiosity kept me watching, and the way the story develops did not disappoint.

Toni Servillo plays Titta, a man just coming up to his fiftieth birthday, who has spent the last eight years living a solitary life in a hotel in Lugano, Switzerland. There's something odd about him, and we soon learn that he's a heroin user. He injects himself, regular as clockwork, once a week. He owns a gun. And he plays cards with an elderly couple who have fallen on hard times, and who indulge in mild cheating. And he ignores the greetings of the pretty young woman, Sofia, who works in the hotel bar. What explains his strange ways?

Piece by piece, we're able to fit together the jigsaw of his life. He is married, but his wife and three children have virtually nothing to do with him. He has a gregarious younger brother, a surf instructor, who takes a shine to Sofia. But she prefers Titta, despite his habitual rudeness. It's all very odd, very low-key, but the story bursts into life when two thugs show up in Titta's room.

I won't say any more about the way the plot develops, but I will say that this is one of those films that I think would repay a second viewing. Knowing Titta's story, it would be interesting to watch how Sorrentino artfully drops hints about what is coming. An off-beat film, certainly, but well worth looking out for.