Friday, 25 May 2018

Forgotten Book - To Be Hanged

Bruce Hamilton was one of the most under-rated crime writers of the 1930s. I've mentioned my interest in his work several times on this blog, and today I'd like to focus on his first novel. (Incidentally, in a fit of enthusiasm allied to technical incompetence, I published a draft version of this post last week, along with a couple of other premature posts; my apologies for inundating you). While Bruce is less renowned than his brother Patrick, for the perfectly good reason that his literary gifts were of a lower order, I think that comparison with Patrick is the key reason why the quality of his work has been under-valued. I certainly accept that it has flaws, but I admire the way he kept trying to do something different, and avoided the constraints of formula.

To Be Hanged was published by Faber in 1930, and it's very different from the conventional Golden Age whodunit. A journalist overhears a conversation which leads him to suspect that a man's conviction for murder is a miscarriage of justice. He then sets himself the task (seemingly untroubled by any other calls on his time) of securing the wretched fellow's release. Which in turn means that he has to establish the guilt of someone else.

This is, therefore,  a detective story, but of an unconventional sort; at times it seems more like a straightforward thriller. The detective is aided by a barrister who again doesn't seem to have anything else to occupy his time, and together they follow an elaborate trail. Could it be that the scapegoat has been deceived by the woman he loved? The answer to that soon becomes obvious, but Hamilton has one or two pleasing plot twists up his sleeve.

Overall, I'd say that this is an accomplished piece of crime writing, especially given its date, and the fact that it was a first novel. Arthur Conan Doyle is quoted on the jacket as saying how clever the story is, and although one has to bear in mind that he was Bruce Hamilton's godfather, this is a novel that doesn't deserve to be forgotten. It should have heralded a career of distinction, but in the event, Bruce's crime writing proceeded in fits and starts before spluttering to a dead halt in the 50s. A real shame.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Innocent - ITV drama review

I've just caught up with Innocent, last week's ITV crime show, a four-parter written by Chris Lang and Matthew Arlidge. I thought it was very watchable, and though it wasn't in any way ground-breaking, that's not a criticism, There are times when TV shows that try too hard to be original simply descend into absurdity. Innocent had its flaws, but overall it was good entertainment.

The basic premise is that David Collins (played very well by Lee Ingleby, an actor of considerable range) has just been released from prison, eight years after being charged with the murder of his wife Tara. His one supporter has been his older brother Phil, but he's lost his two children to his brittle sister-in-law (Hermione Norris, excellent as usual) and her husband. Now, for David, it's payback time. And soon his in-laws come under suspicion themselves.

The police re-investigate the crime, and soon the senior officer discovers that her partner, who conducted the original inquiry, was responsible for a miscarriage of justice. There were some aspects of the police side of the case which didn't seem totally credible to me, and similarly I was baffled by the suspension of the doctor who was one of the suspects - he seemed to be the top man in the practice, but was treated as a junior employee; my inner employment lawyer wasn't convinced. But these are the compromises with reality that writers often feel they have to make.

The location shots were absolutely marvellous - it turns out that Malahide, a lovely spot, stood in for the supposed setting in Sussex. The surprise twist was, to me, entirely foreseeable as early as episode two, but that didn't really matter too much, because the story was nicely paced, well acted, and didn't culminate in one of those tedious cliffhangers which are meant to pave the way for a second series. I don't expect Innocent to return, but it was good while it lasted.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Daggers and CrimeFest

I'm back home, briefly, following an action-packed CrimeFest in Bristol. The convention celebrated its tenth anniversary in style, and a large room was packed to the rafters for the panel about our celebratory anthology, Ten Year Stretch. Considering that my fellow panellists included Lee Child, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, Simon Brett, John Harvey, and moderator Donna Moore, that wasn't perhaps surprising, and we had a great time. It was also good to see fellow contributors such as Jeffrey Deaver and Zoe Sharp during the course of the weekend.

I also, as usual, enjoyed moderating the Authors Remembered panel. This time I shared the platform with Sarah Ward, Nick Triplow, John Lawton, Chrissie Poulson and a new friend, Chris Curran. As ever time flew by all too quickly: so many great books to discuss, so little time. Sarah also moderated a splendid panel on "England's Green and Pleasant Land" in which I took part.

A very special highlight for me was the announcement of the CWA Daggers longlists. I'm truly delighted to say that, for the first time, and rather incredibly, I've been nominated for two Daggers in the same year: the CWA Dagger in the Library, and the CWA ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction (the latter for The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, which has this year been nominated for four awards, two in the UK, two in the US). It's all rather dizzying, and I'm hugely grateful.

Among many other things, I was delighted to present Peter James with a personal memento recording the award to him (a couple of years ago) of the CWA Diamond Dagger (see him wielding it with great aplomb below!). I also had a highly enjoyable dinner with my publishers, about whom more news before long...All in all, a terrific week-end. The delegates were sorry to hear Adrian Muller announce at the Saturday night banquet that there is some uncertainty about whether CrimeFest will take place next year, but here's hoping...

Friday, 18 May 2018

Forgotten Book - Murders in Sequence

I'd heard a little about the American author Milton Propper before I finally got around to sampling his work. Several commentators have compared his work to that of Freeman Wills Crofts, whom Propper admired (he was also a fan of Lynn Brock, I gather from the Passing Tramp blog). I was rather intrigued by the title of his last novel, Murders in Sequence (and also by its alternative title, The Blood Transfusion Murder), which was first published in 1943. Propper (1906-62) was a writer in the Golden Age tradition; his first novel appeared in 1929..

After a group of young people have been out on the town in Philadelphia, a car crash results in serious injury to Victor Watson. His cousin, Eugene Talbot, volunteers to donate blood to help save his life, but Talbot is murdered before the transfusion can take place. The strange sequence of murders foretold by the book's British title then starts to unfold. And it appears that the crimes are linked to inheritance, and a tricky family tree.

The initial police investigation results in the arrest of the obvious suspect, whose girlfriend seeks help from Propper's regular detective, cop Tommy Rankin. He operates almost like an amateur sleuth, re-examining the work undertaken by colleagues,and discovering that the case is far more complex than it seemed at first sight. Unfortunately, I found the investigation, and even the dramatic final plot twist, rather less engaging than I'd hoped.

This is partly because Propper's style of writing is so undistinguished that he makes Crofts seem like Graham Greene. The characters are lifeless, and even Tommy is a rather dull dog. The plotting, although quite crafty, seemed to me to be less meticulous than Crofts'. All this is a pity, because in other hands, the plot could have been the foundation of a very lively story. After writing this book, Propper abandoned the genre, and it may be that the lacklustre writing reflects the fact that he'd wearied of detective fiction. His later life seems to be have been deeply unhappy, and ultimately he committed suicide. So it would be harsh to judge him on this book alone. His earlier work may well brim with zest, but that can't really be said of Murders in Sequence.

Forgotten Book - Holy Disorders

Holy Disorders was Edmund Crispin's second book, written in 1945 and published the following year, but set in wartime, and featuring German spies as well as Gervase Fen. It begins with a young composer called Geoffrey Vintner receiving a bizarre warning not to accept an invitation to travel to a small town called Tolnbridge to play the organ. An equally bizarre telegram from his old friend Fen asks him to buy a butterfly net.

When Geoffrey obediently goes to a department store to purchase the net, he is attacked, only to be rescued by a young man who works there, and whose name, he says, is Henry Fielding. He also reveals that he's a member of the aristocracy. What's more, he accompanies Geoffrey to Tolnbridge to help him find out what on earth is going on.

One organist at Tolnbridge has already bitten the dust, and before long there is another tragedy. Fen is as exuberant as ever, and irritatingly keeps saying that he knows what is happening, while refusing to reveal the truth to Geoffrey or the police. This know-all behaviour was, of course, a feature of Great Detectives - Hercule Poirot was apt to tease in similar fashion - but Fen rather overdoes it.

But that doesn't detract from the enjoyment of a complicated mystery with a startling "least likely person" solution. You don't read Crispin for the characterisation, and the main villain wasn't really believable to my mind, but there is more than adequate compensation in the witty writing. There's even a cluefinder element - footnotes to the closing pages referring the reader to the clues in earlier chapters. Great fun.

Forgotten Book - Mystery at Olympia

Mystery at Olympia

Not so long ago, the prospect of five of John Rhode's detective novels being republished as mass market paperbacks seemed as unlikely as the solutions to some of his more technically complicated mysteries. Rhode's books have long been popular with collectors (or at least, collectors with deep pockets), but the consensus in the publishing world was that there was no real market for them. But the British Library republished two of his Miles Burton novels with considerable success, and this breakthrough has been followed up by Harper Collins, with, so far, three more titles in paperback, plus a hardback of The Paddington Mystery due in June.

I've reviewed Death at Breakfast and Invisible Weapons previously; now it's time to take a look at Mystery at Olympia. This is a story which, on its first appearance in 1935, had a topicality and freshness about its opening scene. Rhode tried to keep up to date, and here he sets the first chapter at the Olympia Motor Show. Among the visitors is Dr Oldland, a chum of Dr Lancelot Priestley, and his professional skills are called upon when an elderly man collapses and dies from no apparent cause. The deceased, it turns out, rejoices in the name of Nahum Pershore, and Superintendent Hanslet soon has reason to suspect that he was murdered - but how, and by whom?

When Pershore's household is investigated, it becomes apparent that there have been some very strange goings-on in the run-up to his death. Someone shot him in the leg, but he made light of it, for some reason. The parlour-maid has been poisoned with arsenic. And another attempt seems to have been made on his life. In this story, unlike many of Rhode's, there's a good-sized cast of potential suspects, with a range of motives, and suspicion shifts around them in pleasing fashion.

So there are plenty of things to like about Mystery at Olympia. That said, it's also a novel that demonstrates Rhode's habitual failings. The first chapter devotes rather more than two pages to a discussion of a new motoring transmission device, but it proves not to have anything to do with the plot, and is simply a form of heavy-handed satire, when - speaking personally - I'd have been more entertained by a page or two devoted to satirising an obsession with cars. But that would have been too much for Rhode, whose love of motoring is also evident from the rather tedious The Motor Rally Mystery.

The murder method struck me as much more chancy than Rhode would have us believe, while the motive is thinly sketched. The same is true of books like The Motor Rally Mystery and Shot at Dawn, where Rhode's lack of interest in humanising his killers makes one as indifferent to their psychology and their fate as Dr Priestley, whose behaviour at the end of this novel offers an intriguing example of a Great Detective doing justice in his own inimitable way. Not a masterpiece, then, but certainly worth a look.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Ten Year Stretch - celebrating a decade of CrimeFest

Image result for ten year stretch

Tomorrow I set off for Bristol, and CrimeFest, which this year is celebrating its tenth anniversary. I've attended every single one, and they are always great fun. So I was delighted when, a couple of years ago, the organisers approached me and asked if I'd like to help them to put together an anthology to celebrate CrimeFest, and also raise money for a very worthwhile cause, the RNIB Talking Books Library.

The result of our endeavours has just seen the light of day. Ten Year Stretch, edited by myself and Adrian Muller of CrimeFest, is published by No Exit Press. The list of contributors is quite glittering: it includes such luminaries as Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Jeffrey Deaver, Sophie Hannah, Mick Herron, Ian Rankin, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, and Andrew Taylor. There is also a story from the legendary Maj Sjowall which has been freshly translated from the Swedish by Catherine Edwards, journalist, editor, linguist - and daughter of the co-editor!

I've always believed that diversity of content is the hallmark of a great anthology, and we certainly have that in abundance in Ten Year Stretch. Ann, for instance, has written a "locked tent mystery" set in Africa, and hers is not the only variation on the classic "locked room" theme: I really hope that the new character she introduces will return in future. As for my own story, "Strangers in a Pub", it too introduces a sleuthing odd couple who may well return at some future date. I enjoyed writing about them and would like to explore their continuing relationship in fresh adventures.

It was both a pleasure and a privilege to read the stories as they came in, one by one, over the course of time. Getting the chance of a sneak preview of a new Child, Rankin, or Deaver is a hugely enjoyable treat for any crime fan. Over the weekend, among other things, I'll be taking part in a panel with Lee, Ian, and Yrsa, and every delegate will receive a free copy of our book, thanks to the generous support of Jane Burfield, to whom we have dedicated the anthology. It should be yet another wonderful convention.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Guernsey and Jersey

I'm back home, briefly, after a trip to the Channel Islands, one of my favourite destinations. Originally, I was asked to give a library talk in Jersey, and this led in due course to a similar invitation from the library in Guernsey; that in turn prompted the organisers of Guernsey Literary Festival to get in touch. So in the space of a couple of hectic days, I undertook three events on two islands and met a good many pleasant people.

I was even given the bonus of a short sightseeing trip around the west coast of Guernsey, with a chance to see the little off-shore island of Lihue as well as to visit an ancient cavern steeped in myth and legend. Then it was off to St Peter Port, and a workshop on crime writing at Les Cotils, with a group which included, to my surprise and delight, that excellent blogger Harriet Devine. I've not run many workshops, but this one was so interesting that I'm tempted to do them more regularly.

On Friday evening I gave a talk about The Golden Age of Murder at Guernsey Library, and also had the chance to catch up with fellow crime writer Jason Monaghan (who sometimes writes as Jason Foss) and the editor of The Golden Age of Murder, David Brawn, whose presence on the island was a delightful coincidence. The three of us had dinner together after the talk, a convivial end to a rather long day.

It was up early again to take the short flight to Jersey, with a chance to look around St Helier before I gave another Golden Age talk to an excellent audience. After dinner I headed back to my hotel and promptly went to sleep for eleven hours: tiredness rather than too much to drink, I can assure you! But next morning I managed to fit in a little more sightseeing before catching the flight back to Manchester.

I've visited the Channel Islands six or seven times over the years, and each time I find something new and intriguing about them. On my last visit, I even planned out a short story set in Alderney, though I fear that it still remains unwritten. One of these days I do hope to get round to writing a mystery set on one of the islands. In the meantime, I'm very grateful to those who looked after me so well during my whistle-stop tour, and I'm very much looking forward to my next trip there - which will be in September, for the Jersey Literary Festival. 

Friday, 11 May 2018

Forgotten Book - The Saltmarsh Murders

It's fair to say that the exuberant detective fiction of Gladys Mitchell is an acquired taste. Julian Symons, one of the best judges of all, never acquired it, and it's easy to understand why. Her books, or at least those that I've read (she was very prolific, and I've focused on reading her work from the 30s and 40s) often seem rather over the top. But I get the impression that she was a fun person, and had fun writing her novels, and that in itself I find appealing.

The Saltmarsh Murders, first published in 1932, was her fourth novel featuring Mrs Bradley, who is fine form, cackling and screeching as she sets about solving a whole series of mysteries which centre around the little coastal resort of Saltmarsh. The story is narrated by Noel Wells, the local curate, but one thing is for sure. This is really not a re-run of The Murder at the Vicarage. In place of Christie's coolly assembled and crystal clear storyline, we have a whirl of activity that often threatens to descend into incoherence - though it just about avoids doing so.

The starting point is that Meg Tosstick, a young girl who works at the vicarage, has got pregnant. Rumours swirl as to who the father might be. The baby is born, but nobody sees it. Then Meg disappears, and in due course is discovered to have been murdered. But there is more, much more going on than that.

I found some of the comedy in the book quite effective; not for nothing is mention made by Noel Wells of P.G. Wodehouse. Some of it, however, has not stood the test of time, while the presence in the story of a black servant prompts some depressing racial stereotyping. And although the presentation of sexual repression might have seemed advanced in the 30s, it's now unappealing. However, if you can cope with all the downsides of Mitchell's eccentric approach to crime writing, this is a book that most of her devotees regard as one of her very best. Me? I'm glad I read it, but I prefer Christie, no question.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn - book review

A. J. Finn's debut novel The Woman in the Window has been riding high in the bestselling charts, and having read it, I can see why. Finn's story blends classic ingredients of psychological suspense with an unreliable narrator, excellent plot twists, and (especially in the early part of the book) compelling prose. There are a lot of books in this vein at present, but this is one I can safely recommend.

The premise of the story owes a great deal to the master of the emotional thriller, Cornell Woolrich: it's really lifted straight out of Rear Window, and Finn cleverly makes a virtue out of this borrowing by having his narrator, Anna Fox, talk endlessly about film noir. Anna is confined to her apartment by agoraphobia, and whiles away her time by spying on her neighbours. Needless to say, the day comes when she sees something shocking - but when the police come on the scene, her account appears to be incredible, and nobody believes her. What on earth is going on?

Although the premise is familiar, what Finn does with it is so cunningly thought out that I'd better not say too much about the way the storyline develops. I felt that Woolrich and his French disciples Boileau and Narcejac (Vertigo, based on their most famous book, is naturally referenced in this story) would not only have recognised the way Finn sets up his mystery, but also admired it. The question then is: can Finn resolve the puzzle he's created without letting us down? Woolrich in particular often struggled to avoid anti-climax, but I think Finn does an excellent job in tying up the loose ends. Having read this skilfully crafted novel, I wasn't in this least surprised to discover that Finn was an experienced book editor.

Finn's real name is Daniel Mallory, and I've been interested to read interviews in which he's discussed his experience of misdiagnosed depression - a topic I touched on the other day in the context of writers and wellbeing. That experience has evidently fed into his presentation of Anna, a deeply troubled woman, who seems to me to be portrayed very effectively. Yes, I enjoyed this book very much. The real challenge for Finn is now simply this: how can I improve on my excellent debut?