Thursday, 20 July 2017

Grasmere and the Lake District Mysteries

I've not said much on this blog lately about the Lake District Mysteries. But if you're thinking that my attention has shifted away from them, as a result of my focus on The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, nothing could be further from the truth. My hope has always been that the work I do on classic fiction will have a beneficial impact on my contemporary work, and there are signs that this is what's happening. The latest of those signs is that Amazon have again included The Coffin Trail in their summer promotion. You can get the Kindle version for just 99 pence. If you haven't sampled the series before, I do hope you'll be tempted.
As it happens, I'm just back from a brief but pleasurable trip to the Lakes. It was a dual purpose visit. First, I was invited to talk to a group of visiting Americans. They were members of a party led by Kathy Ackley and Nicky Godfrey-Evans, whom I've known for a number of years, and they were a great group. A special bonus for me was that among them were those terrific crime writers Charles and Caroline Todd. In recent years, the Todds happen to have shared some happy moments with me at awards ceremonies both here and in the US, and it was great to spend time with them again - not forgetting Linda and DeAnna. A fun evening..
The location of the get-together was Grasmere, a village as charming in reality as its reputation suggests. Each of the Lake District Mysteries is set in a different part of the National Park, but I've not yet sent Hannah and Daniel to Grasmere, partly because it seemed a bit of an obvious step, and I wanted to explore one or two less familiar locations. But I do like Grasmere very much, and it may be time that it featured in one of my books. Meanwhile, I was very glad to sign books in Sam Read, the lovely local bookshop. What I think may be happening in quite a few cases, by the way, is that readers who sample my books (and those by others) as ebooks are starting to buy traditional print copies in the shops. Several people have told me that they've done this, and it does seem interesting that perhaps more of a crossover may develop between online and actual book retailing than has been thought likely in the past.
Another terrific bookshop, Fred Holdsworth's of Ambleside (above), featured on my itinerary on my way home. Again, it's good to see a proud independent bookshop really thriving, and playing an important part in the local community, and I was delighted to catch up over a coffee with Steve, the owner.  And as I toured the area, with research for the next novel in mind, I took in Stagshaw Gardens, Holehird Gardens, Kendal, and Sedbergh. It's a lovely part of the world, and now of course the Lake District is becoming a UNESCO World Hetitage site. About time too!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Catriona McPherson - guest blog

Catriona McPherson is a highly successful Scottish author who has become very popular in both sides of the Atlantic. I've enjoyed meeting her at several conventions, and to celebrate the publication of her latest novel, Dandy Gilver & a Spot of Toil and Trouble, I'm delighted to welcome her to this blog with this guest post.

"For the first ten years of my writing career I lived in Scotland, producing books set in Scotland (and one in Leeds) that were published in London.  It was so easy. Then, in 2010, I moved to California, added a New York publisher and everything got much more complicado. 

For a start, research has to be squashed into a month or so every summer when I’m back in the old country. And that month might be after I’ve turned in the book.  Also, I haven’t experienced a British winter for seven years now and need to keep a post-it note on my monitor saying “It’s probably  raining!” just to remind me. I can feel sympathy draining away, though, so I’ll move on to the big issue.

The big issue, of course, is the deep chasm in our common language.

One US editor now produces three lists of problem words:

Cultural references. We can usually kill these in the contemporary novels because no book lives or dies on mentions of Ribena, Barnardos or Heartbeat, now does it? In the 1930s, it’s a bit tougher. Pantomines, Punch and Judy shows, the Regional Programme . . . there’s a lot of historical texture in those social details.

Standard differences. These have to be managed with some finesse because fictional British people cannot speak American English. British characters just can’t say “pea coat” when they mean “donkey jacket”, or “stucco” when they mean “harling”.  (The answer is usually that the character wears a duffel coat and the house is whitewashed.)  Pudding is always a problem, though. Dandy Gilver can’t say “dessert” (My dear!) And clothes are a blimmin’ nightmare. Jumpers and vests, knickers and pants. A novel set in a naturist colony would be a great relief. I do get a bit shirty (no pun intended) because my enjoyment of Lisa Scottoline’s legal thrillers isn’t dented by the fact that every Philly law office seems to have a “credenza” and I’ve got no clue what one is.

Then there’s the non-standard dialect breenging in, all bolshy, turning the editor crabbit enough to start a stooshie. Here the London editor sometimes gangs up on me with the US editor. We slug it out in an unfair fight. I try to keep as many as I can, especially in the Dandy Gilver novels, because she’s English and can translate for the readers. The editor usually gives a lot of ground but insists on a wee-ectomy. That’s a fair point. It’s quite startling how often Scottish people use the word “wee”, and rarely to mean “small”.  I got 86 uses down to 35 last time.

“Wee” aside, I’m interested to know whether readers mind a smattering of unintelligible dialect in books? Or do you even – this would be a great weapon for the next fight – relish it? 

And if anyone knows what a credenza is, do tell me.".

Friday, 14 July 2017

Forgotten Book- Death By Two Hands

My Forgotten Book for today is another by Peter Drax. Death By Two Hands was first published in 1937, and until Dean Street Press reprinted six Drax books, it was the only one I'd ever found in a first edition. Like Murder on the High Seas, it's unusual for a crime story of the 30s, because it centres exclusively on working class people, with not a country mansion or secret passage in sight.

A young woman called Alma Robinson leaves her home town to live with her disreputable uncle, and becomes a pawn in a criminal game. A dodgy dealer called Rivers hires the ruthless Spike Morgan to steal a consignment of fox furs. Spike and his sidekicks carry out the plan, but things go wrong, and a man is killed. Soon there is another death...

Drax describes the crime with a realism that we tend to associate more with post-war novels than those of the 30s. He's also pretty convincing when it comes to police procedure. Chance plays a part in the investigation, but the story unfolds in a believable way, and there's a small twist right at the end. The treatment of criminals and their activities is much more convincing than was often the case during the Golden Age.

I'd also like to mention the quality of Drax's writing. He has a very good turn of phrase, and his observations are perceptive and convincing. His evocation of character is excellent, and the book is also good on urban settings. Drax's world is very far removed from Mayhem Parva. I'm surprised these novels weren't better known in the 30s, and I'm delighted that Dean Street Press have reprintged them.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The House Across the Lake - 1954 film review

I didn't know what to expect when I settled down to watch a British crime film from 1954. But The House Across the Lake turned out to be set around Windermere, and featured a struggling crime writer as the conflicted protagonist. Needless to say, this premise grabbed my attention right away!

Alex Nicol plays Mark Kendrick, an American writer based in the UK (for unexplained reasons) who rents a place in the Lakes as he tries to meet a deadline for his latest book. He encounters a blonde femme fatale, also played by an American, Hillary Brooke. She happens to be married to a rich man - played (rather to my amazement) by Sid James, in a rare straight role. She's well-known for dallying with other men, and Kendrick befriends the husband but becomes besotted by the wife - rather surprisingly, since the husband's daughter from an earlier marriage, played by Susan Stephen, seems much more appealing.

Anyway, we are in classic film noir territory here. The storyline owes a great deal to Double Indemnity, although it's based on a book called High Wray by Ken Hughes, who directs the film (and later directed many others, including Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang). Although it's not very original, it's well done, at least until the very rushed finale, which I found anti-climactic.

There's fun to be had in spotting the other cast members -including Joan Hickson, Paul Carpenter, John Sharp, and Alan Wheatley (later famed as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood). I hoped the titular house would prove to be Wray Castle, which I enjoyed visiting a few years back, but it wasn't to be. However, I did enjoy this short film. Definitely worth watching. Why was it called Heat Wave when released in the US? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Azure Hand - guest post by Cally Phillips

As a result of my writing activities, I've received many fascinating "out of the blue" contacts from people from all parts of the world. These are often not only enjoyable but also informative. So it was when I was contacted by Cally Phillips last year. She told me about a book and author I'd never heard of. I was tempted to explore further, and I'm very glad I did. The book in question was The Azure Hand, which thanks to Cally's enterprise is now being republished. I've invited Cally to tell the story herself:

"The Azure Hand was first published on 24th July 1917, one of several posthumous works by the writer Samuel Rutherford Crockett, who died in April 1914.  Crockett is better known, where he is known at all any more, as the writer of stirring ‘boys own’ stories of history, adventure, romance set in rural Scotland, France or Spain.  Once dismissed as ‘Kailyard’ he has more recently been seen as coming from the Stevensonian tradition.  

In his lifetime he lay claim to  more than sixty published works of fiction and he is hard to pin down because over the twenty plus years  of his writing career he adapted and adopted different styles in order to keep in step with the changing fashions of popular fiction.  It was not always a successful tactic and the fact that The Azure Hand was never published in his life-time suggests it was one of his ‘failures’.   However, with a centenary edition now due out, a new generation of readers are able to judge for themselves exactly what kind of book this is.

As a detective fiction novel it is unusual, though not unique among Crockett’s work.  He started experimenting with this form – via ‘sensationalist’ fiction in the early 1900s, but he never seemed to quite ‘hit the mark’ for the market at the time.  Looking back with the benefit of a century of hindsight however, we can see that he was in fact being quite experimental both in form and content and The Azure Hand dating well before the Golden Age of Crime presages it in some ways.  It is, to quote Martin Edwards a:   ‘very modern take on fictional detection.  It shows a determination to pick up some of the then popular tropes (clues, footprints etc) and do something relatively fresh with them.’

In 1917 Crockett’s widow, chasing an income from his royalties, persuaded Hodder and & Stoughton (with whom he had a long and fruitful connection) to publish The Azure Hand. Being during the First World War it was a small print run and the quality of the publication was poor – and it soon went out of print into obscurity. 

Ayton Publishing Limited was set up in 2012 with the explicit aim of promoting works by and about Crockett. In 2014 the 32 Volume Galloway Collection was published to commemorate the centenary of his death.  This was followed in 2015 by The Rainbow Crockett series (seven of his works for children) and since then sundry other works by and about him have been published and re-published. It seemed only fitting to bring out The Azure Hand on the centenary of its original publication date.

You can purchase the Ayton Publishing centenary edition in paperback direct from online for the discounted price of £9.99.

To find out more about the life and work of S.R.Crockett you can visit the Galloway Raiders website which is the home of the S.R.Crockett literary society and a great place to start your exploration of all things Crockett related." 

Monday, 10 July 2017

Foreign Bodies

I've been putting the finishing touches to a British Library anthology that I'm really excited about. This is Foreign Bodies, a collection of classic crime in translation that includes several real gems. I'll be saying more about this book in the coming weeks - it's due to be published in October - but certainly foreign crime fiction is very much in my mind just at the moment.

I've been doing some research on the history of crime fiction in non-English speaking languages, and this has reintroduced me to some very interesting authors and stories. And also to one of the great characters of the genre. Eugene Francois Vidocq was not a crime novelist, but his Memoirs were a big success in Britain as well as in Europe, and he influenced plenty of major writers whose work touched on crime. Coincidentally, I visited his birthplace, Arras, in north eastern France while on a brief trip a couple of weeks ago. I really liked Arras, and as well as visiting the citadel, explored the belfry and the mysterious tunnels beneath the main square. A charming town, though I think they could make more of the Vidocq connection.

The reason I got to Arras was that I'd figured out that a trip on Eurostar from St Pancras to Lille takes less time than a train ride from nearby Euston to my local stations, Warrington and Runcorn. So it was time to visit Lille, and I'm glad I did. Vauban's citadel is well worth a look, as is the (relatively modern) belfry and the rather unusual cathedral. Lille also boasts a Sherlock Holmes pub...

In some ways, the highlight of the very short trip. was a visit across the border, to Tournai in Belgium. I loved the triangular main square, and the fascinating architecture all around. The cathedral is magnificent, although currently undergoing major renovations. And I also had time to read a couple of Golden Age books that will feature in Forgotten Books before too long.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Birthday after the Blog Tour

On Friday I celebrated another birthday with a trip to North Wales. There are those who argue that once you get to a certain age, you shouldn't fuss over birthdays, but I take the opposite view. It's good to have a chance to reflect on the past twelve months, and perhaps to look ahead, if not too far ahead. So following my custom, I enjoyed my day out, and along the way mused on a hugely enjoyable year.

The icing on the birthday cake was the news that the British Library are already reprinting The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, only a few days after publication. Very gratifying, as are the early reviews - so I felt I was entitled to a day off from writing! I'd been very busy penning guest posts for the British and American bloggers who were kind enough to host my blog tour, and I was ready for a break.
I love boat trips, and for the first time in my life, I took a trip on the River Conway - both down river, and then out into the mouth of the river, where the views gave me a fresh perspective on a familiar and very lovely landscape. Conwy Castle, which I first visited as a small child, is of course the highlight, and the old town is full of interesting nooks and crannies. It's part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rightly so.

Then it was off to Anglesey, and a tour round another old castle, also part of the World Heritage Site - Beaumaris. I've seen it from the outside plenty of times,, but I'd never ventured inside before, and was duly impressed. Next stop was the seaside, and Benllech Bay, before the return trip to Lymm, and an excellent meal out. Great fun. And the next day, I was back at work on the new book, honest!.


Friday, 7 July 2017

Forgotten Book - Neck and Neck

Leo Bruce's books are much admired by Golden Age enthusiasts such as Barry Pike, who also once put together a pleasing volume of his short stories, but they are no longer well-known in the UK. There were some reprints in the US some years back, but in his native country, Bruce has been neglected for far too long. I've previously praised his excellent debut, Case for Three Detectives, in particular. Today I'm turning my attention to the final Sergeant Beef novel, published in 1950, Neck and Neck.

It's difficult to say too much about this book without a major plot spoiler, but I'll try to skirt round the central device. As usual, the story is narrated by Lionel Townsend, but in this book there's a difference - he and his brother are potential suspects in connection with the murder of his wealthy aunt. A third potential suspect has, in fact, been disinherited, and in any event has an alibi for the time of the aunt's death. So it's all rather baffling. Is Lionel's brother really guilty? Or is there some unknown motive?

Beef is also working on a death in the Cotswolds. A rascally publisher has been murdered, and the author has some fun at the expense of unscrupulous vanity publishers. The storyline darts hither and thither, but without ever becoming unduly distracting. Beef is, as usual, a commanding figure, and Lionel seems rather more sympathetic than usual, even though we suspect he has something to hide.

It may be that there are no original whodunit plots, but certainly the central idea here is handled in a way that struck me as fresh and pleasing. Even though I knew roughly what was going on, I found the story readable and enjoyable. A good mystery that certainly deserves to be better known.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Girl in a Swing - film review

Long before The Girl on the Train, there was The Girl in a Swing. This was a  novel, the fourth by Richard Adams, famed as author of Watership Down. In 1988, it became a film which is the subject of this review - but in this movie, there's not a rabbit in sight. It's really a horror story with erotic elements, and a few supernatural touches.

Alan Desland (played by Rupert Frazer) is a posh young antiques dealer. Good-looking and well-mannered, he is attractive to women, but when a pretty girl throws herself at him, he's not interested. There's something repressed about him, but he begins to lose his inhibitions while on a trip to Copenhagen, when he falls head over with a young German secretary (Meg Tilly).

The girl is rather mysterious, but she falls for Alan, and agrees to marry him. However, she disappoints him by refusing to marry in church, and there are other odd aspects to her behaviour. After early mishaps, their sex life becomes increasingly adventurous, but a sequence of strange little incidents causes Alan understandable concern. What exactly is going on only becomes apparent late in the film, and the explanation pulls the various story strands together reasonably well.

It also makes it easier to understand why Alan's character is key to the storyline. I have to say I found him distinctly lacking in charisma, though the same cannot be said of his co-star, Meg Tilly. Nicholas Le Prevost, a dependable actor, plays the part of Alan's best friend, who happens to be a vicar, and there's a role for Jean Boht, whose husband Carl Davis wrote the soundtrack. Quite watchable, and although scarcely a classic comparable to Watership Down, I rather admire Adams for trying something so very different.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Agatha Christie's Lost Plays

I've very much enjoyed listening to a two-CD set of Agatha Christie's Lost Plays. This comprises two pretty obscure radio plays, Butter in a Lordly Dish and Personal Call, and a radio adaptation of the Poirot short story Murder in the Mews. The plays are supplemented by rare radio recordings of Christie, and also an interview with the actor who plays a boy in Murder in the Mews and went on to win an Oscar as a set designer.

All three plays make for very good light entertainment, and Butter in a Lordly Dish I found especially impressive. It's a very good example of the way in which the nature of justice and retribution regularly plays a part in her work, a feature that critics have often under-estimated. I was also interested in that it was one of six plays written by members of the Detection Club shortly after the Second World War in an attempt to raise funds.

It was first broadcast on 13 January 1948, and it was followed by:

  • The Murder at Warbeck Hall by Cyril Hare
  • A Nice Cup of Tea by Anthony Gilbert
  • Sweet Death by Christianna Brand
  • Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble by E. C. R. Lorac
  • Where Do We Go From Here? by Dorothy L. Sayers

A good list, huh? Hare's play formed the basis for his entertaining later novel An English Murder.

Personal Call is a neat story with a faint touch of the supernatural, while Murder in the Mews is a story with a cleverly contrived plot that, like so much of Christie's work, plays games with the listener's expectations. All in all, this is an excellent CD, with first class bonus extras. Recommended.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Little Walls

The Little Walls was published in 1955, and the following year, it won the CWA's Crossed Red Herring Award for the best crime novel of the year. That was the very first time the prize had been awarded. It's now the CWA Gold Dagger. Some of the finest crime novels of the past sixty years have won the Gold Dagger, but a surprising number have fallen far out of sight since then.

The Little Walls is among them, and yet its author is renowned. He was Winston Graham, famous above all for Poldark, which I've never read or watched, but which is undoubtedly very popular. What is more, Graham's crime fiction was also successful - Hitchcock filmed Marnie, for instance, and The Walking Stick also became a movie.

This novel reminded me strongly of the type of thriller Eric Ambler was writing at much the same time. Graham's writing, like Ambler's, is several cuts above the average. He is strong on character and setting and competent with plot, though this isn't a whodunit. Rather, it involves the attempt by Philip Turner to find out the truth about the death of his brother, who apparently committed suicide by jumping into a canal in Amsterdam.

The heart of the book lies in a series of moral dilemmas. Graham contrasts two different types of personality, in effect representing good and evil, and does so in a way that is constantly interesting, even if the pace is occasional less fast than one expects of a thriller. Much of the action takes place in Capri, and he evokes that lovely island's languid nature very well. I can see why this book won the award, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it at last.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books - Reviews and Blog Tour

I'm just back from a short break, during which I was thrilled to get word of a wonderful and very extensive review of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books in the Sunday Times. Roland White described the book as "a fascinating guide". It's a long time since I last featured in the Sunday Times. My fourth novel Yesterday's Papers, was one of their Paperbacks of the Year; a great honour, though alas it didn't stop Transworld from deciding not to publish me in paperback any longer (in those days I had a separate hardback publisher). I'm hoping to avoid a similar fate this time....

The book has also been discussed at considerable length in reviews on Bookbag and Cross Examining Crime. It goes without saying that I'm very gratified by the reaction. One labours over a book like this for a long time, constantly trying to make it better, yet conscious that perfection is never achievable. The real question is: how far short of perfection does one fall? It's essential to be philosophical about reviews, because you can never please everybody, but it's always a huge relief when people react positively. Although I never release a book without feeling it's the best I could have done, there's never any guarantee that others will feel likewise (or alternatively, that one's best is good enough). Perhaps because of the enormous positivity about the book so far on both sides of the Atlantic,  publication in the UK has just been brought forward a few days, to today.

Today also marks the start of my blog tour featuring the book. I've contributed distinct but overlapping posts to a range of excellent blogs both here and in the US. Today we start with Lesa Holstine's blog. I first met Lesa quite a while back, when I (together with Ann Cleeves and the late Stuart Pawson) did an event for a group of visiting American crime fans in Harrogate. I'm also looking forward to talking to a similar group in the Lake District next month. Such events, and the connections they engender, are definitely a part of the pleasure of the life of a writer. And so are intelligent and encouraging reviews.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Out of the Fog - 1962 film review

Out of the Fog is a black and white thriller film dating from 1962. Its alternate title, Fog for a Killer, is also the title of the book, written by Bruce Graeme, on which the screenplay is based. Graeme, a founder member of the Crime Writers' Association, enjoyed a long and prolific career as a novelist, and although he was never a superstar, he was a highly professional storyteller.

His ability to put together a suspenseful story is illustrated by this film. George Mallon (David Sumner) is a surly young man with a series of convictions to his name. He's released from prison, and offered a place in a hostel along with a number of other ex-cons, with whom he fails to bond. I was intrigued to see that the woman who helps to run the hostel was played by Renee Houston, whose sister Billie made a brief foray into crime writing with Twice Round the Clock. .

Mallon gets a job as a delivery man, and has a brief romance with a young blonde woman which ends abruptly when she is murdered. Nor is she the first victim of a killer with a seeming taste for killing young blonde women. The police suspect Mallon, but have no evidence to prove his guilt. So a young blonde-haired officer (Susan Travers) is given the task of acting as bait.

Needless to say, things don't go according to plan. I figured out what was going to happen, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying this short, snappy film. Sumner and Travers went on to enjoy long careers as actors without really hitting the heights, but Travers in particular does a good job here. There's a decent jazzy soundtrack by Ken Thorne, and overall I felt this film was a notch or two above the average for its time.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Gilded Fly

Yes, I know. It's pushing things to describe Edmund Crispin's The Case of the Gilded Fly as a Forgotten Book. But the Harper Collins Detective Story Club has reissued the novel, and it's good to see it featuring in this eclectic and attractively presented collection. And this edition benefits from an introduction by Doug Greene, who knows more about classic crime than almost anyone I know.

I first came across this novel as a teenager. I'd read and enjoyed The Moving Toyshop, so I borrowed this one from the public library next. Now at the age of 13 or so, I had never been to Oxford, and certainly no concept of what it was like - quite a disadvantage when reading Crispin. This story, like The Moving Toyshop, features an apparent impossibility, but is an apprentice work - Crispin wrote it when he was still an undergraduate at St John's College. And the first chapter introduces a large cast of characters, wittily yet a little clumsily. I have to say that the young Martin Edwards was a bit disappointed, and in fact I didn't finish it. Nor did I return to Crispin until some years had passed.

Now, of course, I appreciate Crispin much more than I did then. His wit and cleverness are strengths, though I think that in this novel, the intelligence is rather self-conscious, a sign of the author's inexperience. My adolescent judgement of the book was too harsh, And now that I love Oxford as Crispin did, I empathise with his portrayal of the city and its eccentric characters.

Especially for such a very young author, this is a well-contrived mystery, although it's still, in my opinion, clearly inferior to books such as The Moving Toyshop and Buried for Pleasure. Yseut, the victim, is suitably unpleasant, but Fen is also, as Crispin seems to acknowledge, pretty irritating too - especially when he makes clear that he knows whodunit early on, but declines to tell. I know Poirot did this time and again, but Fen doesn't carry it off quite as well, and the killer strikes again before the final unmasking.. A critic in The Indpendent even said in a review that he wished Fen, rather than Yseut, had been the victim! As for the murder motive, I'm afraid it' emerges from nowhere, really: not exactly fair play. For a Golden Age fan, Crispin is always worth reading, and there's a lot of pleasure to be had here from his humour and his evocation of Oxford. But for all its merits, it is an apprentice work..

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Lichfield and Remembrance

Yesterday, I seized the opportunity of another lovely June day to follow up a very good recommended trip to a couple of destinations in Staffordshire. And it worked out really splendidly, as well as being rather thought-provoking.

First stop was Lichfield. I've never been there in my life before, partly because my heart always sinks at driving down the M6 (not that anyone who lives in Lymm and likes to travel can really avoid the motorway, mind you). I've heard great things about the cathedral and the town itself is lively and attractive.

I had not, though heard of Erasmus Darwin until I stumbled across his house, now turned into a museum with a lovely garden. It turns out that Erasmus was not only Charles Darwin's grandad, but also a poet, doctor, scientist and inventor. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley all admired him. The museum is definitely worth a visit. Erasmus was clearly a remarkable man.

I did know that Dr Johnson hailed from Lichfield (as did David Garrick) and there are statues of both Johnson and Boswell in the market square. The cathedral is ancient and appealing, while the chapter house does an excellent ploughman's lunch. But I didn't have time for the Johnson birthplace museum, alas, because I also wanted to take in the National Memorial Arboretum, which is only a short drive away. This is a really impressive project, in the developing National Forest. Extensive tribute is paid to those who have given their lives in serving Britain, and I find the whole place poignant, not least a wonderful area given over to poppies and other wild flowers. It was a memorable trip.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Bodies from the Library

I'm back from a brief but exhilarating trip to London, the highlight of which was the third Bodies from the Library event at the British Library on Saturday. The speakers and organisers had met the previous evening for a convivial meal, and I was also delighted to meet Professor Elinor Shaffer, sister-in-law of Peter and Antony Shaffer. This followed a catch-up with my former agent, Mandy Little, now retired, who had faith in  my writing before I published a single novel. It was Mandy who sold All the Lonely People, my first book, and I'll always be grateful to her.

I was asked to open and close Bodies, and between 10 am and 5.15 there was a lot happening. Jake Kerridge moderated a panel featuring Len Tyler, Seona Ford of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society and me, and we talked about aspects of the Golden Age. Tony Medawar spoke about John Rhode, Kirsten Saxton talked enthusiastically about The Incredible Crime, and John Curran about crossword puzzles and classic crime. Then Rob Davies interviewed me about The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

The book was on sale at the event, and upwards of 80 copies were sold. I've never sold anything like as many hardbacks on a single occasion. Plenty of copies of Taking Detective Stories Seriously were also sold - very gratifying. The afternoon events included a Sayers radio play, talks on Elizabeth Daly, Ethel Lina White, Ronald Knox and Edmund Crispin, and a panel in which the speakers talked about their favourite classic crime novels.

For me the day was something of a whirl, just as Alibis in the Archive was the previous week, I was delighted to have the chance to say hello to a lot of nice people, and even send a recorded message to fans of the Detection Club in Brazil (didn't expect that!) but of course there's never enough time during such concentrated events. The main thing was that several people expressed the view that this was the best Bodies yet, and we are all hoping that it will happen again next year. The atmosphere was hugely positive.

There being no rest for the wicked, I then hosted a CWA reception immediately afterwards, announcing that the winner of the 2017 CWA Dagger in the Library is Mari Hannah. The shortlist was very strong and so it was a particular pleasure to congratulate Mari. After dinner with a few friends,,I  must admit that I was quite exhausted. But it was worth it. A grand day.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Lyttleton Case

The Lyttleton Case by R.A.V. Morris is a fairly early example of the Golden Age detective novel. It was first published by Collins in 1922, and was well received, but the author never returned to the genre. I find this puzzling, and so evidently did Douglas A. Anderson, who contributes a useful foreword to the new edition, which appears in Harper Collins' splendid Detective Story Club series of reprints.

I have to say I'd never heard of Morris, or his book until this new edition came out. Douglas Anderson suggests that Morris was tempted to write because he wanted to keep up with the achievements of his brother Kenneth, who wrote fantasy novels. Both men were members of the Theosophical Society, but there's no explanation as to why Morris didn't build on the success of his crime fiction debut.

Anderson points out that there are various references to detective fiction in the story - Dupin and Sherlock are name-checked, but perhaps the most significant mention is that of Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920). My impression is that the success of the Crofts book inspired Morris, because there are some similarities between his approach to crime writing and Crofts'. (Crofts also influenced better known writers such as G.D.H. Cole, Henry Wade, and John Bude).

The first part of the story is clever and appealing. A rich man called Lyttleton disappears, and we soon fear the worst for him. An ingenious crime has been committed, and the story is enhanced by several nice touches of wit. I felt, however, that it sagged quite noticeably from about the half-way point, and after the major revelation, the explanation of what has been going on is prolonged. These flaws are the marks of an inexperienced writer. But Morris certainly had talent, and it's a shame he didn't go on to greater things in the genre.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Blackout - 1950 film

Blackout is another of those short, snappy black and white British films which the Talking Pictures TV channel has resurrected. It dates from 1950, and was an early collaboration between Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, who were later responsible, together and separately, for a host of successful TV series when I was growing up, notably the version of The Saint starring Roger Moore. Incidentally, this is an entirely different story from that in the 2007 movie also called Blackout, which I reviewed on this blog way back in 2010.

The screenplay, by John Gilling, is based on a story by Carl Nystrom, who wrote a number of TV and film stories in the post-war era. The initial premise is a version of a rather familiar, but often effective, opening to a story. A blind man turns up for an appointment, but arrives at the wrong house. He stumbles over a man's corpse, along with a sinister trio of bad guys who unwisely allow him to live because he can't recognise their faces.

Christopher Pelly is an engineer who lost his eyesight in an accident. When he tells the police about the crime he uncovered, he isn't believed, but he revisits the house where the killing took place,and befriends Patricia Dale, who turns out to be the sister of the dead man - who was supposedly killed in an aeroplane accident a year earlier. Together they determine to find out what really happened.

After a strong start,the story falters rather, and I found Pelly's refusal to involve the police sooner rather irritating. Maxwell Reed plays him in the manner of a poor man's Robert Mitchum, while Dinah Sheridan plays the plucky young Englishwoman with her usual efficiency. An interesting supporting cast includes the likes of Eric Pohlmann (later the voice of Blofeld in a couple of Bond films) as a baddie,and Campbell Singer, who was a familiar TV character actor in the 60s, as a police inspector.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Alibis in the Archive

I'm back from an exhilarating week-end at one of my favourite places, Gladstone's Library in Hawarden. We had the Alibis in the Archive weekend event to celebrate the official launch of the British Crime Writing Archives - that is, the archives of both the Crime Writers' Association and the Detection Club.

We organised a packed programme, and the aim was to give delegates plenty of value for money Even so, we were delighted when the week-end sold out back in March -  only a few weeks after being announced. Capacity is limited, and delegates who couldn't be accommodated in the lovely rooms at the Library were able to stay at a nearby hotel.

After dinner on Friday, the first event was an interactive murder mystery evening hosted by Ann Cleeves. This proved enormously popular. On Saturday, we kicked off with David Stuart Davies (who had acted in the murder mystery) giving a rousing talk about Sherlock Holmes. David Brawn of Harper Collins then talked about working with Agatha Christie's estate. I talked about the CWA and the Detection Club, and also their archives. And then Ann talked about Vera and Shetland. TV scripts that she has donated will in due course form part of the archives.

On Saturday afternoon, Rob Davies talked about the British Library, Linda Stratmann about poison, Kate Charles about clerical crime, and Kate Ellis about digging up the past. After dinner we had - yes! - a second murder mystery evening, this time hosted by Kate Ellis. Then on Sunday, Stella Duffy talked about Ngaio Marsh, Rob and I about the British Library's Crime Classics, and there was a panel discussion about Golden Age detective fiction.
We were delighted with the convivial atmosphere, and the enthusiasm of the delegates. A new group of people previously unfamiliar with Gladstone's Library fell in love with it. I had the pleasure of meeting many nice people - including John Bude's daughter, Jennifer.- and also of seeing a project that I've been involved with for a long time finally achieve a very significant milestone. The Archives will develop in the years to come, and I am optimistic that they will become an increasingly important resource for people who are interested in the heritage of crime fiction. The photos illustrating this post were taken by CWA Secretary Dea Parkin, to whom many thanks.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Forgotten Book - Until She Was Dead

Richard Hull, author of today's Forgotten Book, was one of the most interesting Golden Age detective novelists. He was strongly influence by the work of Anthony Berkeley, writing as Francis Iles - it was as a result of reading Iles' instant classic Malice Aforethought that Hull decide to try his hand at writing a crime story. And Iles' cynicism and ironic view of the world is matched by Hull's.

What I like about Berkeley/Iles is that he was always keen to try something different. He showed courage as a writer, and even though some of the risks he took didn't come off, it seems to me that a writer who pushes the boundaries, and isn;t content to write the same book over and over again is to be admired. Following a formula, as many notable crime writers do, is all very well, but it's not really as exciting or inspiring.

Hull was an innovator, and was especially keen on playing tricky games with story structure. Again, it's undeniable that some of his tricks fell rather flat, and also that in his later work he began to struggle to match the originality of his earlier work. But even his weaker novels generally boast points of interest as far as a modern reader is concerned.

This is so with Until She Was Dead, which was first published in 1949. Again, Hull experiments with structure - we know from the outset that there is to be a murder trial, but we don't know who the victim was. So it's a form of "whowasdunin" story We then flash back in time, and see the build up to a crime committed, I have to say, by a rather chancy and unlikely means. In his personal life, Hull was keen on wine and philately, and both play a part in this story.

Unfortunately the small cast of suspects doesn't contain characters we care about - a recurrent weakness of this interesting and unorthodox author. The police detective, who sees the best in everyone, is a pleasing invention, but I felt the story flagged far too soon. So although I enjoyed its unusual features, overall I can't claim that it's a neglected masterpiece. A minor work from a writer of talent.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Murder Squad

Back in the year 2000, I received a phone call one day from my friend and fellow crime writer Margaret Murphy. She was experiencing a feeling that many, many writers will identify with. She was writing good books, and earning good reviews. But she hadn't broken through. Her profile was, she felt, relatively low. And she wanted to do something about it, by teaming up with a group of fellow writers in a similar position. Was I interested? You bet I was. Margaret's a very efficient person, and she soon recruited six colleagues - the result was that we formed Murder Squad.

We started doing events together - often just two or three of us, occasionally more. We travelled around the country to promote our books and each other, and great friendships were formed. We have produced three short story anthologies and even a CD. We even featured on TV's Inside Out programme, and the producer's idea of filming me wandering around underneath Runcorn Bridge even gave me the idea for a key scene in Waterloo Sunset. It's been a lot of fun.

Seventeen years on, Murder Squad is still going strong. So it's lasted much longer than the Beatles! There have been personnel changes, but not many. Sadly, our friend Stuart Pawson died, while Chaz Brenchley and John Baker no longer write crime fiction. But we have been joined by Chris Simms and Kate Ellis. Occasionally all six of us get together - the above photo was taken at Carlisle Crime Festival last year.

Now we're having a bit of a relaunch,and as part of that, we've revamped our website. Do take a look at it, and if you don't know them already, do take a look at the excellent books written by my fellow squaddies. I suspect many of you will already know Ann Cleeves' books, but you'll also enjoy the work of Cath, Kate, Chris, and Margaret (or should I call her A.D. Garrett? Or indeed Ashley Dyer!) You'll be glad you did, just as I'm very glad that Margaret called me all those years ago. .

Monday, 5 June 2017

Kate Paul's Journal

I've mentioned Kate Clarke's writing about real life crime several times on this blog. Her career as a true crime specialist got off to a cracking start with the much-admired Murder at the Priory, co-written with Bernard Taylor, and since then she's produced a range of interesting books, as well as contributing an essay to Truly Criminal, last year's CWA anthology of work about real life cases, some of them notorious, some pretty obscure..

I've never met Kate in person, but she's a terrific correspondent. Some time ago, she sent me a copy of her Journal, published under her maiden name, Kate Paul. It took me far too long to get round to reading the Journal, but once I made a proper start on the story, I was hooked. It is, simply enough, a diary of a young woman's life experiences from the late 50s onwards, and it's fascinating on more than one level.

First, for the insight it gives into a young woman's mindset as she embarks on adult life, trying to work out her attitudes to the world in general, and more specifically the men she knows, art (which she studied at college), and teaching. Second, for the picture it gives of English society at the time, seen through the eyes of a young person shortly before the Beatles arrived on the scene, and the cultural changes we now associate with the Sixties really got going. And as a bonus there are mentions of some of the extraordinary people she got to know. Kate's circle in those days included David ("Dave") Hockney, Spencer ("Spence") Davies (later to have a big hit with "Keep on Running") and Julie Christie.

As a slice of social history, it really is hard to beat. If I were ever to write a story set in the early Sixties, I'd refer to the Journal for insight into how young people thought and behaved at the time. Kate was, as the photograph of her makes clear, most attractive, and yet it's clear that she also felt, at times, insecure and melancholic. In some ways, one would have thought the world was at her feet, and yet clearly it often didn't seem like that to her.

The Mass Observation archive at Sussex University has a good many of Kate's early papers, many of which relate to the period covered by the journal. For researchers into the period, I suspect this is treasure trove. And I hope that in the fullness of time, Kate's researches into criminal cases will also be properly archived. Her work on two principal subjects, British society during her lifetime, and criminal behaviour, is quite invaluable.

(Incidentally, my thanks to those who have pointed out the glitches on my website and blog over the past week or so. I thought the Russians or Chinese were hacking away, but it turns out the explanation is a more prosaic I.T. problem. So if you've seen and been perplexed by an early draft of this post previously, my apologies.)

Friday, 2 June 2017

Forgotten Book - The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Football seldom features in Golden Age detective fiction. Hue and Cry by Bruce Hamilton, which features a football player who goes on the run after killing someone is a very rare exception. But in 1939, Leonard R. Gribble had the audacious idea of setting one of his Inspector Slade mysteries against the background of a real football club, one of the most famous in the world - Arsenal F.C.

Gribble was a writer with considerable commercial nous. He found support from the club, whose players and manager feature in the story, and The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was quickly filmed, by Thorold Dickinson, with Leslie Banks -at that time a very popular actor - playing the part of Slade. I watched and reviewed the film nearly nine years ago, and now the time has come to talk about the novel.

The setting, as the title makes clear, is Highbury (Arsenal only moved to the Emirates Stadium in recent times) and a match between Arsenal and a leading team of amateurs called The Trojans. During the game, one of the Trojans' players, a right-half (ah, those were the days) called Doyce, is taken ill and dies. It soon emerges that the cause of death is aconite poisoning. He has been murdered.

This is a highly readable fair play detective novel, and although I figured out the solution in good time, I enjoyed the story, not least as a reminder of how much the game has changed since the book was written. My copy is one of my most prized items in my personal collection - it was signed by the team and manager in 1942. One of those who signed, and who features in the story, is a player called Cliff Bastin, on whom my father - a useful amateur footballer in his day - modelled himself. I suspect he'd have been amused to learn that, even though I'm an avid Manchester City fan, I went to some lengths to track this copy down.