Monday, 29 May 2017

The Launch

I very much enjoyed the launch of Taking Detective Stories Seriously last Wednesday evening. The Dorothy L. Sayers Society did a very good job of organising the event, and Hatchards in Piccadilly was an excellent venue. The turn-out was excellent, especially since there was another crime book launch nearby that same night. And I admit to being chuffed when one of the Hatchards folk recommended me to a book about the Sayers era - which proved to be The Golden Age of Murder...

A book of reviews that were written more than 80 years ago is never going to disturb Paula Hawkins and all the celebrity chefs on the bestseller lists, but this is a project that has been dear to my heart for years, and it's so good to see it come to fruition. And there was a "feelgood" atmosphere at the launch, which was gratifying.

Other writers sometimes ask me about whether it is worthwhile to hold a book launch. I often regale them with an anecdote from my early days as a published novelist. At that time, I was published by Transworld in paperback, and one day I travelled to London to have lunch with my editor to celebrate the appearance of my second book, Suspicious Minds.

But my editor was unwell, and in her place was her boss, a very pleasant guy called Tony Mott. In my enthusiastic way, I asked him what advice he would give to writers hoping to improve their sales. He simply said, "Just remember that book launches don't sell books. They may be fun, but in the overall scheme of things, they don't make much difference."

He was a smart guy, and I'm sure he was right. The real question, though, is whether a launch can be arranged which is a truly enjoyable event. If it's possible, as with Taking Detective Stories Seriously, then it's well worth doing. I've launched a couple of books at Gladstone's Library, for instance, and found that was a delightful experience. But as Tony Mott said, when it comes to marketing a book, a launch is not an end in itself. It's merly the beginning.,


Friday, 26 May 2017

Forgotten Book - High Seas Murder

Years ago, I came across a brief mention in a reference book of Peter Drax as one of those writers who followed in the footsteps of Francis Iles, Bruce Hamilton, and C.E. Vulliamy as an author of realistic, ironic crime novels. Intrigued, I strove to find Drax's books, but they were hard to find. Eventually I was pleased to come across one, but they have remained elusive. Until now, that is. Dean Street Press have just reissued the six books that Drax published during his short life, and Rupert Heath of DSP recommended me to have a look at High Seas Murder, which I'd not encountered before.

Rupert was right - it's a really good book. It was first published in 1939, and was the last novel Drax (whose real name was Eric Elrington Addis - I can see why he opted for a pen-name) produced in his lifetime. His crime writing career began in 1936, so he flourished only briefly. A senior naval officer, he was killed in a German air raid on Alexandria in 1941. After his death, a seventh book was completed by his novelist wife Hazel.

Drax spent much of his adult life as a sailor, though he retired from the Royal Navy in 1929, and practised as a barrister until the war broke out. His knowledge of the sea informs this book, and the authentic feel of the story adds to its quality. But what I find very interesting is the fact that the story focuses almost exclusively on working class people in the fishing port of Gilsboro. The lawyers and the cops play only a minor role.

Although (rather oddly) he is not the first character to whom we are introduced, the central protagonist is Carl Swanson, captain of a local fishing ship. His personality is key to the story - and it's a sign of Drax's skill that the final paragraph contains a clever twist that casts fresh light on Carl's psychological profile. There's a doom-laden feel to the story that today would undoubtedly be described as "noir". The writing is crisp and gripping, and Gilsboro is well-evoked: Curtis Evans' informative introduction doesn't suggest any real life model for the town, and though I have two or three candidates in mind, it may be an amalgam of several towns Drax knew. This is an enjoyable example of the ironic Thirties crime novel, different from Iles', Hull's, and Vulliamy's work yet certainly worthy of being associated with it.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Dead Man's Evidence - film review

Dead Man's Evidence is a short film from 1962 starring Conrad Phillips, who was a very familiar screen presence in those days. The screenplay was written by Arthur La Bern, an interesting character whose most famous novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, was filmed by Hitchcock as Frenzy. La Bern was a pretty good storyteller who was also a journalist specialising in true crime.

And this is a story which, I suspect, was sparked by a real life mystery, even though I've not managed to find any discussion of the film which supports my theory. But in 1956, the mysterious disappearance of a frogman called Commander "Buster" Crabb made headline news. The puzzle has never been solved, though according to some theories Crabb was a spy who became a double agent. My guess is that the case inspired La Bern, even though his story moves in a fresh direction after the body of a diver with connections to the intelligence services is washed up on an Irish beach.

Conrad Phillips plays David Baxter, an intelligence officer who is asked to look into the death of the diver. Could the body belong to a friend of Baxter's, who was suspected of being a double agent? The only clue is a ring that appeared on the dead man's finger, but which quickly vanished. Can someone be trying to conceal the identity of the deceased, and if so, why? Baxter pretends to be an insurance investigator, but a local journalist, a woman photographer and her mysterious boyfriend all become curious about his activities.

The story zips along rather nicely, and there's a decent plot twist. The Irish setting is also well done. Phillips was a charismatic actor, even though he never became a really major star. He befriends a charming and seemingly naive young woman, a limited role but well played by Jane Griffiths; I'd never heard of her, but it seems that she died all too young. Overall, this unpretentious film is definitely worth watching. .

Don't Talk to Strange Men - 1962 film review

Of all the British black and white B movies that Talking Pictures has screened in recent months, Don't Talk to Strange Men is one of the most gripping. The film first hit the screens in 1962, and it' not much more than an hour long. It doesn't boast a starry cast, and I'd never heard of the scriptwriter, Gwen Cherrell. But in terms of building tension, it puts many a big budge movie to shame

One of the features of the script is its economy. In the first scene, we see a girl being picked up on a lonely road. Soon a body is found by a group of children. We never learn more about the victim,and indeed we learn next to nothing about the murderer - not even what he looks like. The real question is: where will he strike next?

Two sisters play central parts in the story. They come from a "nice" middle class family, and they chafe against the restrictions imposed by their kindly but relatively old parents. Christina Gregg plays the dreamy romantic Samantha, who runs into danger when she answers a phone ringing in a telephone kiosk. Her younger sister, played by Janina Faye, also gets enmeshed in Samantha's web of deceit with potentially disastrous results.

Christina Gregg was 22 when the film was made, though she played a teenager. She does very well in the role, but appears to have married in the year the film was made,and given up acting; quite a loss. The best known faces in the supporting cast belong to Conrad Phillips, for once not playing a villain, and Dandy Nicholls, later to find fame as Alf Garnett's wife. This taut little film gives as clear a picture of conventional British society just before the Beatles era than you'll find in many a history book.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh - review

I am a fan of psychological suspense, and in recent years I've read plenty of examples of the currently fashionable "domestic suspense" novel. Gone Girl, so well-written, is outstanding among them, but having just read Clare Mackintosh's best-selling debut I Let You Go, I'm inclined to think that, in terms of storytelling power, it's at least as good.

Books of this kind tend to have certain common features, including one or more jaw-dropping plot twists. The snag is that sometimes the twists aren't really credible. No such problem with I Let You Go, where the first major plot twist, after a measured but interesting build-up of suspense, comes half-way through the book. When this particular structural device works well, as it did in Gone Girl, and many years ago in Ira Levin's brilliant A Kiss Before Dying, it can be highly effective. So it is here.

The story begins with a hit-and-run car accident, which kills a five year old boy called Jacob. The police investigation fails to yield quick results, and we follow a developing relationship between two of the cops, as well as the enigmatic behaviour of grieving mother Jenna, who describes the way in which she begins a new life in south Wales. Then comes the first major twist in the story, and we hear for the first time from another voice.

I don't want to say too much more, because to do so might spoil some of the pleasure afforded by this novel. It's a clever story, and I admire clever writing, but there's something else to be said (cryptically, to avoid spoilers!) This novel, written by a former police officer, gives us a shocking insight into a particular aspect of human behaviour that I found utterly compelling. It's all the more powerful because it seems highly authentic. Was I impressed? You bet.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Crimefest and the CWA Short Story Dagger


I've returned from Crimefest in Bristol to a ton of work, but in high spirits after a lovely week-end. Thanks as ever go to Adrian, Myles and Donna, the organisers, along with their team of helpers. There were many highlights, but one that i didn't expect was to find that I was longlisted for the CWA Short Dagger, for my story "Murder and its Motives", which appears in the Detection Club anthology I edited last year, Motives for Murder (Sphere). What's more, three other stories from the book made the longlist, much to my delight

In case you're wondering, as Chair of the CWA, I keep a distance from the Daggers process, which is in the hands of a large number of capable and independent judges and Dagger Liaison Officer Mike Stotter. The independence of the Daggers judging process is part of the reason why the awards are held in such high esteem around the world. One publisher expressed dismay to me that a particular novel by a talented author hadn't made one of the longlists. But whilst I can always empathise with disappointment, publishers simply can't influence the judges, and that's the way it should be. We may not always share the judges' taste, but such is life.

The convention kicked off for me, as usual, with the Authors Remembered session. I moderated a panel comprising Sarah Ward, John Lawton, Andrew Wilson and Jane Corry, and they did a great job of interesting the audience in a range of writers from Patricia Highsmith to Elizabeth Daly. There was time for a quick bite to eat before the traditional pub quiz, run by the admirable Peter Guttridge (photo above). My team managed to win, and we had a very convivial time of it.
The Dagger announcements took place on Friday, and was followed by dinner with Thalia Procter of Little, Brown, publisher of Motives for Murder. My fellow guests included Peter Lovesey and the incomparable Ali Karim, whose company I always enjoy. Thanks also to Ali for his photography and video work. Saturday was a busy day. I interviewed Peter Lovesey, one of the guests of honour, and then took part in a panel moderated (extremely well) by Kevin Wignall. Then came an enjoyable drinks reception and the banquet. Ali videoed the interview with Peter and the film will shortly be available on the shotsmag website.

On Sunday, I moderated another panel, this time on the short story. Given that my panellists were Len Tyler, Janet Laurence, Peter Lovesey and Ann Cleeves, it was a great pleasure and a great way to end  a fantastic few days.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Allied - 2016 film review

Allied, first screened last year, is one of the best new films I've watched in recent months. It's a wartime thriller which stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cottillard as a couple who are pitched together in the fight against Hitler. They meet in Morocco,where Pitt, playing a Canadian spy,called Max and Cotillard, playing a French resistance fighter called Marianne, pose as a married couple who risk their lives conspiring together in an assassination plot.

The killing of a senior Nazi goes according to plan, and by this time the pair have fallen for each other, turning their loving charade into reality. They go to England, marry, and Marianne gives birth to a child. Meanwhile Max's work in intelligence goes on. One day, however, he receives terrible news. Marianne is suspected of being a German spy.

Can this possibly be true? Can Max really trust the woman he loves? The moral dilemma is nicely presented, and the tension continues to mount. I thought the screenplay was very crisply written. When I investigated, it turned out that the writer, Steven Knight, was also a co-creator of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He's obviously keen on games of cat and mouse, and Allied is a very good thriller indeed.

Both the stars give strong performances, and rhey are well supported by a cast that includes the versatile Anton Lesser. Robert Zemeckis, a gifted director, does a good job with the material and there's a soundtrack by Alan Silvestri. Suffice to say that I found the film gripping from start to finish. Not all the critics loved Allied, but I did.

Monday, 15 May 2017

HIgh Tide

High Tide was a novel published by P.M. Hubbard in 1971. Almost a decade later, the story was adapted for the Armchair Thriller television series in four episodes, and I recently watched, the complete mystery on Talking Pictures. Benefiting from a strong cast, it's stood the test of time pretty well, even if by modern standards the background music seems very intrusive.

Hubbard is a writer who has been recommended to me by several good judges, but I've not read much of his work. In my shallow youth, I was deterred partly because he has a very low-key style, and wasn't especially interested in complex plotting, and partly because his main interests, such as small boat sailing, didn't coincide with mine. But I've come to appreciate his qualities more, and I intend to read him more extensively.

High Tide is an atmospheric thriller rather than a complex puzzle, but it does feature a neat variation on the "dying message clue". Curtis (Ian McShane, at his best in this role) has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter. He was responsible for the death of a man called Maxwell, whose mysterious final words prompt a rather menacing chap (played by Terence Rigby) to pursue him. Curtis figures out the meaning of the message,and befriends a pretty but mysterious young woman as he tries to find out what Maxwell was up to.

His quest - undertaken by boat, in characteristic Hubbard fashion - leads him to a house occupied by an ill-matched couple, played by John Bird and the glamorous Kika Markham, who seem to have the clue to the mystery. The sequence in which Rigby's character gets his come-uppance is rather memorable. I enjoyed seeing this, and it's helped to strengthen my interest in Hubbard..

Friday, 12 May 2017

Forgotten Book - No Murder

I've been looking for a copy of H.C. Bailey's No Murder (1942) for a long time. My interest in this book dates back to the time when I read a letter in that great magazine CADS, in which John Jeffries claimed that it's the best detective novel ever written. The quest was given further impetus nine years ago, when Barry Pike, a very good judge, discussed the novel in CADS, and concluded that, if not superior to the greatest Golden Age books, this outing for Reggie Fortune was right up there alongside And Then There Were None, etc.

Barry's short but incisive essay pointed out that the book "is densely packed, with many strands to the narrative, including three violent deaths and three attempts to murder which Bailey handles "with great panache, leading the reader steadily up the garden. He demonstrates continually...the ability to tell one story while appearing to tell another". I agree that's a very significant gift for any detective novelist, and I also agree with him that Agatha Christie was the supreme exponent of this technique.

Barry adds: ""The particular cleverness of No Murder lies in its continuous misdirection, maintained with great skill to the end." The book's American title was The Apprehensive Dog, and as Barry rightly says, "the significance of the dog's activities emerges only in the last few lines of the text." The snag is that this is a rare book, much harder to find than all the other classics to which Barry compares it. So why is it that such a gem has been hidden from view for so long?

Now that I've read No Murder, I think I can guess the answer. The fact that it appeared during the war probably didn't help, but really the density which Barry mentions is reflected in the prose style, and this means that it's nothing like as smooth and slick as the best of Christie. Characters tend not to see things, for instance, they "descry" them. What is more, although the story is intricate and unusual, I didn't find it exciting. This is despite the fact that Bailey was, at his best, a genuinely powerful writer. But his techniques work best in short stories. One of the problems here is that the finger of suspicion points at too few people, and this frustrated me. There's also something anti-climactic about the story, a problem reflected by the title. That said, I was intrigued by the book and I'm glad I've read it. It's certainly original, and I do prize originality. But do I regard it as a masterpiece? I'm afraid not.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Thriller of the Year - theatre review

Until last Thursday, I'd not gone to the theatre for more years than I care to remember. It's not because of any lack of enthusiasm - as a student, I used to go to see plays constantly -, but I found working life (especially when my commute home often lasted until about 8.15 pm)  and the need to write at weekends incompatible with theatre-going. One has to prioritise. But this is something I'd like to change, and at least I've now made a start on fulfilling this ambition

The play I went to see was a local am dram production - Thriller of the Year, performed by the Bridgewater Players. The venue was Thelwall Parish Hall, down the road from home, which I last visited a couple of years ago to give a talk about crime writing. The Players are a long-established group - this production is their 179th. I've often seen adverts for their productions, but never found the time to watch them. Having prepared for the evening with a nice meal in the cosy low-beamed village pub across the road, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The play dates from the late 60s - a landline telephone plays a central part in the story, and there are plenty of other period touches. The storyline rather appealed to me, a few days after receiving the Poirot- it features a crime writer returning home after winning an award! A variety of incidents make it seem as though someone wants her dead, and is using her prize-winning thriller as a template for the crime.

Glyn Jones wrote the play, and one notable feature is that the cast of five is all female. Jones was a South African born actor, playwright, novelist, director, and lyricist who achieved the unusual feat of writing one early episode of Doctor Who and appearing in another. Some bits of the dialogue are rather wooden, and would have been in the 60s, and there were one or two iffy plot elements, but overall I was entertained. And the cast, led by Anita Rushman as the author Gillian Howard, overcame any first night nerves to do a sound job. I must also say that a ticket costing six quid with a cup of coffee and biscuits included has to represent fantastic value for a good evening out. Overdue as it was, I was glad finally to make the acquaintance of the Bridgewater Players.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Taking Detective Stories Seriously

I'm delighted to say that Taking Detective Stories Seriously, the collected crime fiction reviews of Dorothy L. Sayers, will be publicly launched at Hatchards of Piccadily on 24 May at 6-7 pm. The event is free, but places should be booked. If you'd like to book, let me know and I'll put you in touch with the Dorothy L. Sayers Society the publishers, who are hosting the event

The launch of the book marks the culmination of a long journey, so long that it's taken several years to get to this point. After becoming fascinated by Sayers' reviews in the Sunday Times in the mid-30s, I suggested to the Society that they deserved to be published. This was agreed, and in the end, I would up introducing the book (there is also a foreword by Simon Brett) and writing a lengthy commentary. Putting the whole enterprise together was quite a task, but thanks to Sarah McIntosh, who painstakingly transcribed the original reviews, Seona Ford, and a number of other people connected with the Society, it has finally come to fruition.

I'm excited about it, because I think the reviews are a wonderfully informative resource for mystery fiction fans. What's more, they read very well, despite the fact that Sayers put them together under great pressure of time. She was, arguably, at the peak of her powers when she wrote them, and even if you aren't a huge fan of Sayers, I think that if you like classic crime ficition, you'll find plenty here to fascinate you.

Reaction to the book has already been very positive - here's a lengthy review by Kate Jackson which I was delighted to see. Even if you can't make it to the launch, you may well find the lure of the book hard to resist. I hope so.




Friday, 5 May 2017

Forgotten Book - The Mystery of the Three Orchids

Since I read my first Maigret novel at a tender age, I've been interested in crime fiction in translation. Until recently, however, there was a real shortage of Golden Age crime translated into English. All that is, happily, beginning to change. And as I mentioned recently, I'm making my own contribution to this by putting together Foreign Bodies, an anthology to be published by the British Library later this year.

Meanwhile I'm taking the opportunity to extend my knowledge of foreign crime fiction of the past. An example is The Mystery of the Three Orchids by Augusto De Angelis. It was published recently by Pushkin Vertigo, who were also responsible for introducing me to the books of Frederic Dard. The translation by Jill Foulston is smoothly readable. It's not a long novel, and none the worse for its relative brevity.

The setting is Milan, where a man's body is found in a leading fashion house. An orchid has been left nearby. Soon, another murder is committed, the victim this time being female. Again, an orchid seems to have been left on the scene by the murderer. What is the significance of the flower, and who is responsible for the crimes? Inspector De Vicenzi, a likeable fellow, sets out to solve the puzzle.An American gangster appears in the story, a plot development that usually makes me wince, but overall it's a nicely done story, and at least the gangster plays a crucial part in the plot.

There's a useful afterword which supplies a little background info about the author. De Angelis (1888-1944) led an interesting life, and enjoyed considerable success with his fiction. The Murdered Banker (classic title!) appeared in 1935, and this particular novel came out seven years later. Sadly, injuries sustained as a result of a beating by Fascists proved fatal two years after this book appeared. But thanks to Pushkin Vertigo, his work is enjoying a new lease of life, and a good thing too.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Malice Domestic and the Poirot Award

After weeks of breathless globe-trotting, I'm back in sunny Cheshire for a while now, and I've a chance to reflect on some marvellous trips, most recently to Malice Domestic 29 in Bethesda, Maryland (a suburb of Washington DC). Malice is an exceptionally well-run and friendly convention which focuses on the traditional mystery. This was my fifth time at Malice, and after receiving one of their prized Agatha awards last year, I was extremely fortunate to be honoured again.

This time I was presented with the Poirot award; which is given in recognition of a significant contribution to the traditional mystery genre. It isn't awarded every year, and the contribution in question may be quite distinct from writing books - the very first recipient was David Suchet, and last year the Poirot went to Barbara Peters and Rob Rosenwald, whose Poisoned Pen Bookstore and Press have made such an impact over the past twenty-odd years.

It was a great honour, and I was delighted to share the evening of the awards banquet with some special guests, including Doug Greene (a past recipient of the Poirot), Steve Steinbock, and British writers Ann Cleeves and Frances Brody. Also on my table was Cathy Ace, originally from Wales but now Chair of the Crime Writers of Canada, who interviewed me about my career and did a fantastic job. I also enjoyed being part of a panel including other honorees such as Charlaine Harris and Elaine Viets, and signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Historical, which includes a story of mine. To my delight, Crippen & Landru produced a specially published edition for convention delegates of my short story "Acknowledgments". .

As ever with conventions, I tried to fit in some sightseeing, and I can certainly recommend a river cruise on the Potomac. One of these days I'll make it as far as Mount Vernon....The weather was gorgeous, so I spent as much time as I could outside, visiting various monuments as well as the botanical garden. Washington is a great city. As for the convention, it passed all too quickly, but I was delighted to spend quality time with old friends and new, including Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Gin Malliet, Michael Dirda, and Elaine and English Showalter. It was good, too, to meet John Norris, whose blog Pretty Sinister Books I've long enjoyed, for the very first time. My thanks and congratulations go to the Malice Board, who always do such a fine job. I've already registered for next year, and if you like crime conventions, this is one I can strongly recommend.




   

Monday, 1 May 2017

Danger By My Side - 1962 film review

Danger By My Side, which first hit the screens in 1962, proved to be the last film directed by Charles Saunders, whose better-known brother, the theatrical producer Sir Peter, is known to mystery fans as "The Mousetrap Man". This movie is a straightforward but lively thriller which seems slightly dated despite the inclusion of a strip-tease in a night club that seems extremely tame by today's standards.

A prisoner called Hewson, played by Brandon Brady, is released from jail. He was a member of a gang involved in a robbery, and is given work by the gang boss, Venning (Alan Tilvern) who has his finger in a number of pies. An undercover policeman who has penetrated Venning's operation is killed in a hit and run incident, and Lynne, the dead man's sister, played by Maureen Connell, determines to bring his murderer to justice.

Lynne takes a job at a night club run by a manager in Venning's pay. The manager is played by Bill Nagy, whom I remember distantly as pal of the American soldier who married Elsie Tanner in Coronation Street's hey-day in the Sixties. He's one of the few recognisable actors in the cast, along with Anthony Oliver, who plays Inspector Willoughby. Maureen Connell gives a good performance, and it's a shame that her career was not long-lasting. Even less renowned is Kim Darvos, who plays a singer in the night club who meets a grisly end.

This is another of those short and snappy thrillers which strove to capture criminal life in the years immediately before the arrival on the scene of the Beatles, who changed British popular culture in so many ways. It's not a sophisticated movie, but still a competent piece of light entertainment.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Forgotten Book - The Dead Man's Knock

As regular readers of this blog know, I have a very soft spot for locked room and impossible crime mysteries. Yes, they are artificial, but they can be highly entertaining. And nobody mastered the art of the locked room mystery, and produced so many brilliant variations on the theme, than John Dickson Carr. What is more, he created not only one Great Detective in Dr Gideon Fell, but also a second, Sir Henry Merrivale (although it has to be said that the two have much in common.)

Dickson Carr's heyday was in the 30s and 40s. By the late 50s, he seems to have been running out of steam, although he was not an old man. His powers of invention were, however, flagging, and I'm afraid this is evident in my Forgotten Book for today, The Dead Man's Knock, published in 1958. It's a Fell book, but it's set in the US (Fell is on a trip over there), in academe in Virginia.

The book begins with an account of various spiteful pranks in college, very faintly reminiscent of t those in a very different book, Gaudy Night. We are introduced to Mark Ruthven and his wife Brenda, whose marriage seems to be threatened by a woman called Rose Lestrange who has, Brenda thinks, designs on Mark. Rose hasn't made herself popular in the community, and she soon winds up murdered.

This story has a locked room element, as well as a "lost" Wilkie Collins novel, which gives the book its title. But Carr doesn't make enough of these ingredients, and I'm afraid the result is very thin far. The characters spend too much time in neurotic squabbling, and I found myself unable to care about them, or about the mystery. This isn't a good Carr. I looked around for other views to see if I was being too harsh, but I'm afraid The Puzzle Doctor, for one was also unimpressed.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Stranger in Town - 1957 film review

Stranger in Town is a black and white movie adapted from a novel by Frank Chittenden called The Uninvited. I know very little about Chittenden, but he appears to have produced five novels, generally as by F.A. Chittenden. This one appears to have been his last effort, which is surprising, as it was adapted for radio even before being filmed - a successful note to bow out on, if one assumes he gave up writing crime fiction afterwards.

The director was George Pollock, today remembered by me as the director of Murder Most Foul, the movie that introduced me to Agatha Christie. He was responsible for four Miss Marple films starring Margaret Rutherford, and also for the 1965 film Ten Little Indians, a somewhat regrettable version of Christie's finest novel. He wasn't Hitchcock, that's for sure, but he was a competent entertainer.

In this story, a moody composer is murdered, and his former girlfriend (Ann Paige) mourns him. The death is put down as suicide, but once John Madison (played by Alex Nicol) turns up and starts poking his nose in, the villagers become increasingly defensive. Surely it wasn't a case of murder? Well, we can predict the answer long before a second death occurs.

The story is so-so, and the real joy of this film lies in the supporting cast, which features actors who became more successful than the lead actors (whose performances are not terribly gripping). So we have Willoughby Goddard, so wonderful in the William Tell series a couple of years after this film came out, Harry Towb, Charles Lloyd Pack, and the marvellous Arthur Lowe all in minor parts. Not  a bad film, and I'd be interested to learn more about Chittenden.


Monday, 24 April 2017

Peter Walker R.I.P.


The pleasures of the CWA conference were tempered by news that I received while on my way to Edinburgh, namely that our former Chair, Peter N. Walker, was poorly - he'd suffered a recurrence of cancer, which he had overcome very well some years back. We all signed a card for him and his wife Rhoda. But after I returned home, I received the very sad news that Peter had died,

I've spoken about Peter numerous times on this blog. He was really the first person I got to know when I joined the CWA, since shortly after I became a member, he made contact with people living in the north of England to propose forming the northern chapter of the CWA. I met him and Rhoda when a small group of us met for the first time in Boroughbridge - it was a group that included Reg Hill and his wfie Pat, Bob Barnard and his wife Louise, and Margaret and Peter Lewis. They made me feel very welcome and became good friends.

Peter remained the convenor of the northern chapter for many years, and also became a popular Chair of the CWA. Excitingly, he broke the news at one meeting that his "Constable" books, published under the name Nicholas Rhea, were to be televised, and he bought us all a drink to celebrate. The TV series turned out to be Heartbeat, one of the most successful shows of its era.

So Peter became hugely successful, but success never changed him a bit. He was a kind, generous, down-to-earth man, a former policeman and press officer who took Heartbeat's success in his stride. The above photo of Peter and Rhoda was taken at Boroughbridge ten years ago, when we held a special weekend event to celebrate the northern chapter's 20th anniversary. And it was at Boroughbridge, in February, that we met for the last time. I spent many hours in his company over the years and enjoyed every minute. Like many other people, most of all his devoted family, I'll miss him  a great deal.


The CWA annual conference in Edinburgh

I'm just back from the annual conference of the CWA, which this year took place in one of my favourite cities, Edinburgh. I first visited the Scottish capital as a teenager and, as so many others have been over the years, I was bowled over by its character and its history.  Way back in 1989, when I was a newish member, the CWA conference was also in Edinburgh. The organisers were Alanna and Alistair Kinght, and it was a great pleasure to sit next to Alanna once again at the gala banquet on Saturday and present her with a bouquet of flowers as a reminder of our appreciation of all she has done for the CWA.

We broke the journey to Edinburgh by stopping at several fascinating places, and stayed overnight at New Lanark Mill on the banks of the Clyde. The evening walk up to the Falls of Clyde was memorable, as was a visit to the spooky ruins of the Carmichael House, on the way to New Lanark. Scotland is a country of contrasts, and duality was a theme of the conference's reception event, a double act by Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith, which was thoroughly enjoyable. It was a great pleasure to meet Sandy McCall Smith for the very first time.

The quality of the speakers throughout the weekend was of the highest order. Two retired senior police officers gave us gripping insights into major crime in Scotland, while a leading forensic soil scientist, Professor Lorna Dawson, and a top forensic pathologist, James Grieve (who features in Ann Cleeves' Shetland books) completed a very impressive line-up. Add to that an underground tour of the historic Mary King's Close and a superb after dinner speaker in Leeona, Lady Dorrian (the second most senior judge in Scotland, who turned out to be a keen fan of classic detective fiction), and you had the recipe for an excellent week-end. A group of local students, the crime writers of tomorrow, helped with the arrangements, and a Sunday afternoon event at Blackwell's saw the announcement of the winner of the young writers' flash fiction prize.

A lot of hard work goes into the organisation of such a conference, so congratulations once again to Aly, Alex, Aline and Marianne for all their successful efforts. And at the AGM, I was elected to serve a full year as CWA chair after taking over from Len Tyler mid-term. A busy twelve months ahead...

Friday, 21 April 2017

Forgotten Book - Bird in a Cage

Frederic Dard was a successful and exceptionally prolific French crime writer whose work is little known in Britain despite the fact that he's often been compared to his friend Georges Simenon. That should change now, since Pushkin Vertigo have begun to publish some of his books.in English translation. I decided to have a look at Bird in a Cage, first published in 1961, and now translated by David Bellos.

This is a mystery set at Christmas, but if you're expecting a Parisian equivalent of The Santa Klaus Murder, you are in for a shock. It's really a noir story, with a melancholic mood, and a whiff of Boileau-Narcejac (when will more of their mysteries be translated into English, I wonder? Vertigo was far from being their only masterpiece).

The protagonist is Albert, who has come back home after years of absence. His mother is dead, and he becomes entranced by an attractive woman he chances to meet. The woman has a child (although it has to be said that the narrative does not show her parenting skills in a particularly good light) but she seems as drawn to Albert as he is to him.

Before long, however, we are confronted with a corpse, and in due course, in classic mystery fashion, the body vanishes. What is going on? I enjoyed this story, and felt that Bellos' translation worked well. It's a very short book, not much more than a novella, but none the worse for that brevity. I enjoyed reading it, and will look forward to reading more Frederic Dard.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books - the cover and the first review...


 

It really is a great thrill for me to be able to give advance notice of the publication (in July in the UK, August in the US) of my new book, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, published by the British Library.

The first thing for me to say is that although the book covers some of the same ground as The Golden Age of Murder, it's very different in approach, and in almost every other respect. It's not a list, not even a collection of personal favourites. The clue is in the title - I wanted here to tell a story.

I've invested a lot of time and effort in this book, so naturally I'm anxious about how it will be received. The Golden Age of Murder is perhaps, quite a hard act for me to follow. 

So you will appreciate that I was excited (and relieved, let's be honest) when Publishers' Weekly in the US gave the book one of its prized "starred reviews" the other day. It's a great way for the story of this particular book to begin. 

And it's such a nice review, perhaps I'll be forgiven for quoting it in full:

Written as a companion to the British Library’s Crime Classics series of reprints, this descriptive critical catalogue of 100 crime and mystery novels (mostly British) published in the first half of the 20th century is irresistible for aficionados and a reliable reading list for newcomers. Edwards’ picks, most published during detective fiction’s golden age between the two world wars, range chronologically from Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) to Julian Symons’s The 31st of February (1950) and include, in addition to many of the usual suspects, a few outliers sure to enliven debates among diehard fans. He groups his selections into 24 chapters that cover numerous aspects of the literature—the great detectives, the fair-play mystery (epitomized by Ronald Knox’s The Body in the Silo), the miraculous or locked-room mystery (a specialty of John Dickson Carr), country house and manor murder mysteries, and so on—and whose ordering shows classic tropes giving way to newer approaches more resonant with modern times. A crime novelist in his own right, Edwards (The Golden Age of Murder) brings a specialist’s discerning eye to discussions of each book’s significance, and without giving away key plot points. This is an exemplary reference book sure to lead readers to gems of mystery and detective fiction. 

Monday, 17 April 2017

Foreign Bodies



There are some fascinating titles coming up in the British Library's Crime Classics series over the next twelve months. The programme for the second half of this year has recently been made public, and it includes a number of books I'm really pleased about. These include The Long Arm of the Law, a collection of police stories that I've edited, for which I've just finished writing the intros. Several rare stories make an appearance, as well as some by more familiar names.

I suppose, though, that if you forced me to say which of the various anthologies I'm editing this year is likely to excite the most interest, I'd be bound to say Foreign Bodies, which is due out in October. This book gathers together classic crime stories in translation. Some of the translations are brand new, and the friends and colleagues to whom I am especially indebted include John Pugmire and Josh Pachter.

It's often thought that classic crime fiction was the preserve of British and American authors. Georges Simenon is seen as an honourable exception. But the truth is more complicated, and more interesting. In reality, plenty of authors in Europe and elsewhere were writing crime stories, sometimes with a nod to Anglo-Saxon traditions and tropes, sometimes not. The trouble is, very few of these stories were translated at the time.

Foreign Bodies seeks to redress the balance, and tell an interesting story about foreign crime fiction. I'll say more about the detailed contents at a later date, but at this stage let me just add that of all the many anthologies I've edited since the mid-90s, I think this one might prove to be the most striking. We'll see.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Forgotten Book - The Martineau Murders

The Martineau Murders is the last novel published by Richard Hull. An obscure and hard-to-find title, It appeared under the Collins Crime Club imprint in 1953, and it marked the end of an interesting literary career. I've mentioned my enthusiasm for Hull (real name Richard Henry Sampson) several times on this blog, and I've been trying to find out more about him for years..

In  his day, he was much admired, and he continued to play an active part in the Detection Club, of which he was Secretary, for a long time after he gave up writing. It seems to me that he lost enthusiasm for fiction, as there is a touch of weariness evident in some of his post-war books. None of them lived up to his famous debut, The Murder of My Aunt. But The Martineau Murders represents a return to that book. Not because there are any common characters or a shared setting, but certainly some story elements are to be found in both novels.

"My doctor has just left me" is the opening sentence. Alas, the medic has brought bad news to the narrator, the eponymous Martineau, or so it seems. But Martineau is a rather unreliable narrator, and much of the pleasure of the story comes from the reader's recognition of the gulf between Martineau's perceptions and reality. Some of this is, perhaps, rather laboured for modern tastes, and this is a book that (like one or two of Hull's other books) could have done with a meatier plot, but it is still quite entertaining.

By the time this book was written, more than a decade had passed since the appearance of the last book by Francis Iles, the author whose Malice Aforethought was a profound influence on Hull. The two men laced their work with a good deal of irony, and the law of unintended consequences plays a central part in their fiction. So it is with The Martineau Murders, a village mystery with a pleasing if foreseeable twist in the final chapter.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Fear is the Key - 1972 film review

During my teens, I went through an Alistair MacLean phase, reading every thriller he'd written. I began with The Last Frontier,and took in classics like H.M.S. Ulysses and Where Eagles Dare along the way. In time, MacLean's writing seemed to me to deteriorate, and I stopped reading him. But one of my favourites of his novels was Fear is the Key, which impressed me with its plot twists and emotional drive.

So I was glad to seize the chance to watch the film version, made in 1972,when MacLean's fame was more or less at its height. His stories were visual, and many were turned into films, most of which I watched - but somehow I missed this one. Perhaps because its cast was slightly less starry - although it did include a youngish Ben Kingsley, complete with a full head of hiir!

Barry Newman plays John Talbot, the main protagonist. Newman was well-known as the star of the TV series Petrocelli, but for me he was never quite in the top league of action heroes. Here he does a competent job, but although it's perhaps a harsh judgment, I feel he didn't have quite the level of charisma, magnetism or however one describes it that seems necessary for the role of Talbot. The obligatory glamorous young woman is played by Suzy Kendall, who was once married to Dudley Moore.

At the start of the film, Talbot is involved in a tragic but slightly mysterious incident. The action then shifts forward three years. Talbot is arrested and brought to court, where he shoots a policeman and escapes after kidnapping Suzy Kendall. There's a memorable car chase, and the plot twists come at acceptably regular intervals. Roy Budd supplies an excellent, jazzy soundtrack. Overall, a watchable action movie, but it's not of the same high quality as some of the best MacLean films.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Miraculous Mysteries

Today sees the UK publication of Miraculous Mysteries, my collection of classic locked room and impossible crime mysteries for the British Library. I've always had a love of this paradoxical type of puzzle, and this book is dedicated to the memory of Bob Adey, the greatest expert on the subject, who guided me to so many hidden gems prior to his untimely death.

The first locked room detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Poe, was a short story, and I feel that the short form is best suited to the locked room puzzle, because of the necessarily fantastic nature of most of the plots. Of course, there are some fine novels featuring impossible crimes, and John Dickson Carr wrote a bunch of them. But I see these mostly as exceptions to the general rule.

As ever, I've tried to include a range of familiar and unfamiliar authors. We all know Conan Doyle, but Grenville Robbins is long forgotten. And so too is Marten Cumberland, even though he had a long and relatively successful career. I'm very pleased too that I've been able to include a little known story by Christopher St John Sprigg that I found highly enjoyable.

I'm delighted by the initial reaction to the book, including this splendid review. It would please me enormously if this book were to sell well, since there are plenty of good classic impossible crime stories around, and I'd love to put together a follow-up volume. But that lies far in the future. Right now, I'm celebrating this book, and I hope that it provides thousands of readers with plenty of entertainment.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Forgotten Book - Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy

Freeman Wills Crofts published Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (aka The Starvel Hollow Tragedy) in 1927. It's often cited as one of his best books, and I concur with that view. The story is readable from start to finish, and the plot is worked out rather cleverly. So although I latched on to one aspect of the solution at an early stage, Crofts managed to confuse me with some rather neat twists.

At first, the focus is on an attractive young woman who lives with her miserly uncle in a Yorkshire mansion - the location seemed from internal evidence to be somewhere in the vicinity of Helmsby and Thirsk. After she goes away on a short visit to a friend, she returns to find the house burned to the ground. Three corpses are discovered, evidently those of her uncle and two servants. At first it looks like a tragic accident.

But a local bank manager takes a different view, and before long Scotland Yard are called in, in the person of good old Inspector Joseph French. He's portrayed in a rather human fashion, yearning for promotion and keen to keep on the right side of his superiors, but utterly relentless in his pursuit of the guilty once it becomes clear that this is a case of arson and multiple murder.

As with The Cask, Crofts manages to sustain interest in the detailed police investigation by offering a sequence of surprising developments. I enjoyed this book - which was reissued by Hogarth back in the 80s - and can recommend it to anyone who likes Croftsian writing. Crofts was an engineer by profession and this mystery is certainly engineered with high calibre craftsmanship.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

San Francisco


Because Hawaii is so far away from Cheshire, I wanted to break up the long journey home. And where better to do so than a city I've long wanted to discover, San Francisco? The city by the bay did more than live up to expectations. It's now my favourite American city. I may not quite have left my heart there, but I found it quite enthralling.


It's a city with strong crime fiction associations. Laurie R. King lives there, and she gave me a few tips about places to visit. I was fascinated by my first glimpse of Alcatraz, scene of some notable movies. I suppose, though, that I associate San Francisco most closely with two films. First, Bullitt, the private eye film legendary for its car chase. And second, Vertigo, one of the best crime films ever made; I've seen it four or five times. And of course the full list of famous films set there is lengthy.


I'm often teased for my unashamedly touristy devotion to hop-on, hop-off buses, but I'm unrepentant: they make a very good way to get one's bearings in an unfamiliar place, and my first aim was to do just that. After riding around the city, the next step was to explore Fisherman's Wharf, and Pier 39 (I hadn't expected to see large numbers of sea lions right next to it) and take a ride on one of the famous cable cars, which I loved. Then there was a night bus tour, a chance to see both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge lit up against the night sky. All very memorable.



Next came a trip to Sausalito, an appealing little town with a Riviera-like atmosphere. From there we took the ferry across the bay, past the Golden Gate Bridge, past Alcatraz and back to the ferry terminal. And in the terminal building, while having a snack, I spotted a bookshop called Book Passage. Unable to resist, I had a look inside and to my amazement found two of the anthologies I've edited for the British Library. Quite a treat.

 Further exploration followed - the "Crookedest Street", which is unlike anything I've ever seen - Chinatown, Japantown, and the Painted Ladies (the latter a group of houses on Alamo Square). My plan now is to read some more crime fiction set in San Francisco. I'm familiar with Laurie's books - any other recommendations?.





Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Hawaii Five-O



My trip to Hawaii was replete with crime story connections. Quite apart from Charlie Chan, I cast my mind back to two shows I watched as a small boy - Hawaiian Eye, and Hawaii Five-O. One tour on Oahu even gave me a sight of the island used as setting for another show I enjoyed when very young - Gilligan's Island. I doubt it would stand up to scrutiny now. And though I didn't bump into Steve McGarrett, I was delighted to share the adventure with Steve Steinbock. There were many conversations about crime fiction late into the evening.


After Oahu, we went to Kauai, where Steve hired a car, enabling us to cover much of the island, including a canyon described as the island's answer to the Grand Canyon. Quite a spectacle. Kauai really is a tropical paradise, and I have come up with an idea for a story set there. I'm hoping to start work on it shortly. I'm no wildlife expert, but Hawaii is full of fantastic opportunities to see the indigenous wildlife. We saw everything from giant turtles swimming off the amazing Spouting Horn on Kauai, to wild pigs at a waterfall a few miles from Lihue, mongooses aplenty on Oahu, and roosters everywhere.




Next stop was Maui, and we stayed at Lahaina, where Mick Fleetwood has a restaurant on Front Street, a road awash with galleries selling very impressive and very expensive art ("Is thirteen thousand dollars a lot of money? I don't know," one gallery owner mused; I did know, and made my excuses quickly enough.)


There were hula dancers aplenty, but the most memorable sights came when we went whale watching on an eco-ferry. I once went dolphin watching off Gibraltar, and saw not one dolphin, but this was very different. The sea was full of whales, and it was fascinating to watch them. I found myself intrigued by the Hawaiian way of life, as well as by the wonderful scenery. A memorable trip, for sure.



Monday, 3 April 2017

Honolulu Havoc Left Coast Crime in Hawaii

Right now, I am adjusting (rather slowly) to British Summer Time after a trip which took me to the other side of the world. The jetlag was definitely worth it - I had an amazing time, and feel fortunate to have spent just over a fortnight globe-trotting after my previous travels in recent weeks. The reason for this jaunt was that the Left Coast Crime convention, which I've attended once before, in Seattle, was being held in Hawaii this year. I felt that Honolulu Havoc presented a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so I grabbed it.
The convention was fun. I moderated one panel, on the theme of criminal justice, with four American panellists whom I hadn't met before but, who to my delight, proved to have plenty of great stories to tell. And I took part in a Golden Age panel, very well moderated, with colleagues including Ragnar Jonasson and Steve Steinbock. This was tremendous fun, with a very good crowd. It seems almost incredible, but in the last six months I've talked about Golden Age mysteries in New Orleans, Madrid, Dubai, and Hawaii.
There was also the chance to catch up with a range of old friends, including my delightful American publishers, Rob Rosenwald and Barbara Peters, who were in grand form. As I've said before, the social side is what makes conventions, in my opinion, so well worth the time, effort, and cost. As friendships grow, and mutual understanding develops, opportunities for worthwhile writing and other projects can sometimes emerge, and this is often very exciting. I enjoyed meals with my publishers, with Laurie R. King, Bill and Toby Gottfried, uber-Sherlockian Les Klinger, among others. I was also glad to have a chat with Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, whom I hadn't met before, and another guest of honour, Colin Cotterill. Steve and his wife had agreed with us that we'd share each other's company on three Hawaiian islands, and this worked out wonderfully well. One of our dinners even took place in a restaurant named in tribute to Charlie Chan.


Honolulu is on Oahu, and it's a busy place, overflowing with tourists, but beyond the skyscrapers and the beaches there is also a lot of history. I learned much more about the tragic events at Pearl Harbour, and also went on a trip round the south part of the island, After four days, I was sorry to leave. So will I be writing a story set in Oahu? I doubt it. But Kauai, our next destination, was a different story...  

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