Saturday, 31 December 2011

Looking back on 2011

So, today we say goodbye to 2011, and for me it’s been an immeasurably better year than the previous two. Events on the day job front dominated, above all negotiating and helping to implement my firm’s merger, and as a result of that, I’ve done much less fiction writing than usual. A pity, but a price worth paying, as I am now hopeful that I will have more time to devote to fiction in the future, reducing from full time working in the not too distant future. The photo was taken on a research trip around Ullswater and I hope the memories of that lovely day will inspire me to write more next year.

In publication terms, it was a productive year, though largely because of work I’d done in 2010. The Hanging Wood was published, and earned terrific coverage in The Times, The Guardian, The Literary Review and elsewhere. I was really gratified about that. Reviews are bound to be subjective, but they do matter to any writer (as well to his or her publisher.) And I also edited two anthologies, Guilty Consciences and Best Eaten Cold.

I was lucky enough to be directly involved in some great events, including no fewer than six festivals of different kinds – The Wordsworth Festival, the Newcastle Winter Books Festival, the Lymm Festival, Crimefest, the Harrogate Theakston’s Festival, and St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Week-end. I wrote a new murder mystery event set in the 1920s, gave a range of talks, and was awarded a Red Herring for services to the CWA. So perhaps I was busier on the literary front than I realised at the time.

I was also very fortunate to spend a delightful week-end on the Isle of Man, much of it spent in the company of that fine writer Chris Ewan and his wife, as well as going on four trips overseas – all of which provided me with background material for future short stories.

I’ve read excellent novels by friends such as Peter Lovesey, Ann Cleeves and Kate Ellis, and the most impressive contemporary American book I read this year was The End of Everything by Megan Abbott. I also continued my research into the Golden Age and read some excellent books from the past. For me, the highlight among the latter was The Pursued by C.S. Forester, a remarkable discovery. I've also enjoyed discovering Jessica Mann's early work, and some classics by John Dickson Carr, Henry Wade, J.J. Connington, C.Daly King and others.

One area where I have been remiss is in keeping up with other people’s blogs. I’ve spent much less time on this than I’d have wished, but I must say that the quality of some of the crime-related blogs, many of which are listed on the blogroll, is quite splendid. And it seems to keep improving. An interesting feature is the increase in the number of blogs dealing with Golden Age books - very pleasing to see this trend.

I do feel very grateful for the interest taken in this blog by so many people, and when I get the chance to meet some of you in person (for instance, this year I’ve had the very welcome opportunity to chat with Dorte, Kerrie, Karen and Paul Beech among others) I find it an enormously enriching experience.

So – thanks for all your support and generosity in 2011 and let’s hope that 2012 is a good year for the crime fiction community, and (is this too much to hope for, given the economic climate?) is a better year for the world as a whole.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Fear in the Night - review

Fear in the Night is a film noir directed by Maxwell Shane in 1947 on a rather obviously low budget. It was based on a short story by William Irish, aka Cornell Woolrich, and was re-made a few years later as Nightmare starring Edward G. Robinson. In this version, Forrest DeKelley, later Bones in Star Trek, made his movie debut.

The set-up is pleasing. A man has a nightmare, finding himself in a weird, octagonal room with mirrors for walls. A murder takes place - and he commits it. He is thankful to wake up back in his hotel room, only to find that he still has the key to the room from his nightmare....

It may not be the most sophisticated mystery I've ever watched, but I found it rather enjoyable. There is a highly-wrought atmosphere from start to finish, as the man who believes he is guilty finds he cannot live with himself, even though he does not have a clue why he would have killed someone he didn't know. The solution is rational, and reasonably entertaining.

Woolrich was a master of the 'emotional thriller'. The only writers to equal his mastery in this field were Boileau and Narcejac. It's no coincidence that their books, like Woolrich's, were often made into films. They are highly visual, as well as dark. Woolrich, by the way, was gay, and I've read an article which suggests the film has a strong homosexual sub-text. But if that's right, it was lost on me.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

21 Today!

Although this blog is about crime writing and not about my family, it wouldn’t exist without the young man who designed the template (and updated it recently) and set me on the right road, and who also designed and continues to maintain my website. As Jonathan is 21 today, I should take the chance to pay tribute to his good humoured support and encouragement for his technologically incompetent father, and thank him for all his hard work. And to thank him also for his terrific companionship, not least when he and I went on a short holiday to Rome earlier this year, when the photo was taken.

I still can’t believe that it’s 21 years since that amazing day when he was born. A day which will always remain among the most memorable of my life. Well done on 21 great years, Jonathan, and all the very best in terms of health and happiness in the years to come.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Agatha Christie's Poirot - The Clocks: review

Agatha Christie's Poirot remains a real treat whenever I come across a new episode, and The Clocks has been the highlight of my holiday viewing so far (not that the competition has been hot or even warm, admittedly, given that I've never got to grips with Downton Abbey).

The Clocks is a relatively late Christie novel, first published in 1963, and it's not rated very highly by connoisseurs - though I have always liked the story. The discovery of a corpse surrounded by a mysterious array of clocks is a great plot device, and even though Christie's explanation is, some would argue, a cop-out, I find it striking and memorable. Another pleasing aspect of the book is Poirot's discussion of great detective novelists, including a passing reference to John Dickson Carr, whom Christie knew and admired. There is also mention (crucial to the story-line) of a prolific author called Garry Gregson, who I believe was based on John Creasey.

I wondered how the scriptwriter would adapt the novel for television, because the story-line does throw up a lot of challenges - not least the fact that Poirot only takes centre stage quite late in the book. Stewart Harcourt's solution was to adapt very freely indeed, and move the story back in time by a quarter of a century - a risky course. There have been all too many Christie adaptations over the years where radical changes have been made, and the result has been a bit of a mess. But that isn't always the case, by any means, and I'm not one of those purists who believes that a novel must invariably be translated to the small screen in a totally faithful fashion. The screenwriter often needs to have some licence. And in this case, I felt that the end justified the means. The mystery was pleasingly unravelled, and although I had one or two quibbles, I found the two hours passed very agreeably: Harcourt did a good job.

David Suchet, as usual, was splendid as Poirot. It was especially poignant to see the late Anna Massey playing the part of the blind but sharp-witted Millicent Pebmarsh - she was a terrific actor. And the supporting cast was good, with none of the over-the-top acting we've seen in one or two Poirots and Marples.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

I've now finished work for the Christmas break, one that I've been looking forward to. A chance to relax and also reflect on what has been a momentous year for the whole world, and certainly momentous and memorable for me.

I'm also hoping to do plenty of reading - got to make an impact on that TBR pile somehow! In fact, it's not so much a pile, more a mountain range of Himalayan proportions.

There have been, of course, plenty of mysteries set at and around Christmas. Hercule Poirot's Christmas is probably the most famous, but my favourite is Cyril Hare's An English Murder. This is a classic mystery by one of the most agreeable stylists at work in the genre in the 20th century. If you like older books, and don't know this one, do consider giving it a try.

And now all that remains is to wish you all a very happy Christmas, and to express my grateful thanks for your support for this blog, and for your consistently constructive and thought-provoking comments. More posts soon, but now I'm off to wrap presents!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Forgotten Book - In Whose Dim Shadow

J.J. Connington was a reliable Golden Age writer, and it’s rather surprising that In Whose Dim Shadow, published in 1935, truly is a Forgotten Book. The copy I’ve just read, generously lent to me by a keen collector, boasts a wonderful pictorial dust jacket with a map of the scene of the crime, perfectly in keeping with Golden Age tradition.

This novel features his regular “Holmes and Watson” duo, the Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield, and his friend Wendover. They are upper class figures, but decent men who are not snobbish – in fact, their attitude towards characters who are dismissive of working class people is one of disgust. This slant on the class system is a reminder that class divide issues in Britain were, and perhaps still are, rather more complex than they might seem.

Connington is not known for his characterisation, but there are a number of points in the story when he makes observations about human nature that I thought were quite acute. And as detective novelist, he strikes me as under-rated. This case involves the discovery of a body in a flat, and the victim proves to have been a bigamist.

The mystery is cleverly contrived, with a neat story-line, not too much padding (though I admit the pace isn’t electric) and a good solution. The only real snag is that Connington is so keen to play fair with the reader that, to my mind, he gives too many clues and makes it too easy to solve the problem. But it’s an enjoyable story, all the same.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The return of All the Lonely People

It’s now over 20 years since Harry Devlin made his debut, when my first book, All the Lonely People, was originally published. It was a marvellous experience for me, becoming a published novelist at long last, and not surprisingly I have very fond memories, not only of the book but of that whole period in my life.

The book was published in paperback by Bantam, a division of Transworld. When the Devlin series was acquired a few years later by Hodder, a new paperback edition was produced. Sadly, though, this edition has been out of print for quite a while.

This is a common problem for authors – unless they are best-sellers. One’s early books are no longer available in current editions, so it's hard for readers to track down those books. However, I am very happy to say that All the Lonely People will next year enjoy its third incarnation in a paperback edition.

This is because those enterprising publishers Arcturus have decided to include the book in their Crime Classics series. Given that other authors featured include Anthony Berkeley, whom I admire so much, and the likes of Francis Durbridge and Ethel Lina (The Lady Vanishes) White, I am flattered, as well as delighted. I’m fortunate indeed to have a book which has been paperbacked by three different publishers, and All the Lonely People has certainly been a very lucky book for me.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Killing II - review

The Killing II finally came to an end this week-end. I'm not going to talk about the story-line in detail, because I imagine that some readers of this blog will be wanting to catch up with the later episodes in the near future. But a few thoughts do strike me.

This was a show of ten episodes of an hour each, which I felt began very well, and also ended strongly. At first I thought there was a tocuh of early Taggart in the enigmatic and inter-related story-lines, but this comparison only survived the first couple of episodes. Althought the plot was tangled, and had one or two good aspects, it wasn't as clever as the work of Glenn Chandler, who created Taggart.

The acting was good and the production values were pretty high. However, I felt the story sagged very badly in the middle. There were stretches when I was rather bored, and this was because the characters' relationships, although not without interest, weren't compelling enough to sustain such a protracted exercise. The political aspects of the story really didn't excite me at all.

I am still intending to watch the original series of The Killing, which attracted so many rave reviews. But overall, I'd have to rate The Killing II as a disappointment. It had a number of strengths, but to justify ten hours of story-telling, you need to have a really outstanding tale to tell. For me, at least, The Killing II too often felt like an endurance test. The story simply wasn't strong enough to justify such an investment of time.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Forgotten Book - Careless Corpse

My forgotten book today is an obscure but extraordinary novel written by a fascinating, idiosyncratic and sometimes maddening American Golden Age storyteller. The book is Careless Corpse, first published in 1937, and the author C. Daly King. And it included that odd paragraph on economics that I teased you with yesterday.

I’ve mentioned King before in this blog. He was a psychologist who wrote books on the subject, and he drew from his professional expertise for his novels. But this did not take him down the road of “psychological suspense” – his fiction bears no resemblance to that of Francis Iles, say, or C.S. Forester. On the contrary, he specialised in elaborate puzzles, often weighed down by strange digressions into academic debates. An example is the passage I quoted in my quiz question.

In this novel, a series of deaths occur among members of a party of celebrities – including a concert pianist, a violinist, a dancer, a composer, and a musical critic. The party is organised by a wealthy scientist, and the setting is an island amid the ice-floes of the Hudson River.

As so often, King provides helpful diagrams – no fewer than five – and arranges the text in a series of “movements” to underline the musical aspects of the story. The plot is elaborate and wildly ingenious (and, of course, improbable) and there is some entertaining writing mixed in with a bit of padding here and there. I don’t claim this book is great literature, but I really did enjoy it as a light, escapist read.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Quiz Question

Here’s an extract from a book I’ve just read. It amused and intrigued me because the passage was written in 1937, yet arguably it has a modern resonance in these troubled economic times.

But the question is – do you know which book it appeared in? I will be very impressed if anyone knows the answer – but I’ll put you out of your misery tomorrow!

Here’s the quote:

“Why, this, country is on the skids properly now! With your taxes boosted practically to the British level, what do you do with them? The British use theirs to balance their budget, set their nation in order, pay for their necessary current running expenses; you use it for political bribery of the most corrupt kind and still pile up deficits twice or more as large as the increased taxes.”

Any ideas?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

R.I.P. Gilbert Adair

I never met Gilbert Adair, but I was sorry to learn of his death a few days ago. He was only 66, and suffered a second stroke; the first, it seems, had robbed him of much of his vision, a tragedy for anyone, but certainly for someone who loved reading as much as Adair must have done.

I've mentioned Adair once or twice before in this blog. He was a sophisticated writer, with a real interest in detective fiction. I read his A Closed Book when it first came out years ago, and enjoyed it. Some people see it as a sort of updating of Francis Iles, one of my favourite crime authors of the past.

In recent years, Adair had dabbled in pastiche, and he produced three books boasting titles which are riffs on Christie classics – And Then There Was No One , a very tricky piece of work, was his last published novel, as it turns out. His books tended to get a mixed reception from Golden Age fans, but there was no doubting Adair’s flair, intelligence or ability to see things differently. One of his titles was The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice. You either like that kind of joke, or you don't, and I definitely do.

In an excellent obituary in The Daily Telegraph, Jake Kerridge highlighted an excellent passage from A Mysterious Affair of Style (2007) which is worth quoting:

“It’s my theory...that the tension...of a whodunit....has much less to do with, say, the revelation of the murderer’s identity...than with the growing apprehension in the reader’s own mind that...the ending might turn out to be, yet again, a letdown...the reader’s fear [is] not that the detective will fail...but that the author will fail.”

A fascinating, if controversial proposition – and thus typical of Gilbert Adair’s work.How I wish I’d had the chance to meet and talk with him and get a better insight into a brilliant mind.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dorothy and Wilkie

Dorothy L Sayers had a huge admiration for her Victorian predecessor Wilkie Collins. I too am a Collins fan, and it's interesting to see the ways in which his work sometimesinfluenced hers. Perhaps the most notable example is to be found in theepistolary form that she adopted for her non-Wimsey novel The Documents in theCase.

For many years, Sayerstalked about writing a biography of Collins. She did start work on it, butnever managed to complete it – for reasons that are not entirely clear. She hadall the attributes, certainly including a gift for scholarship, that would haveequipped her ideally for the task.

I've often wonderedabout the incomplete biography, and recently John Curran told me that it hadbeen published, but was very difficult to obtain. Now, thanks to the kindnessof Christopher Dean, the chairman of the Dorothy L Sayers Society, I have beenable to borrow a copy, which I read with much interest.

There are one or twopassing observations to her fellow detective story writers, J.J. Connington andHenry Wade, but sadly, the manuscript finishes before Sayers reaches the pointin Collins' life when he wrote his masterpieces, The Moonstone and The Woman in White. What a pity that we do not have a really detailed study of those booksfrom Sayers in the context of Collins' life story. Perhaps she meant to returnto the book one day in the future. Her sudden and rather premature death meantthat she did not have the chance to do so – and we are the poorer for it, eventhough it is pleasing that the fragment remains in existence.

Sunday, 11 December 2011


Jessica Mann is a writer of very interesting novels, some of which I’ve mentioned in the past. She’s also a critic and commentator, with a very good full-length study of female crime writers, Deadlier Than the Male, to her name.

Jessica has now started a blog with discussions about “pre-feminism for post-feminists”, a topic that really is much more fascinating than that tag-line may suggest. You could argue that feminist issues are at the heart of much of Jessica’s fiction, but her novels are certainly not didactic, and any points she wants to make don’t get in the way of the story.

The blog anticipates the appearance next spring of her latest non-fiction book, The Fifties Mystique, which evidently talks about some issues of concern to feminists. But whether or not one labels oneself as feminist, I’d expect it to be a very interesting piece of work. As a male reader who enjoys many books written by women and featuring female characters, I’m looking forward to it.

On the subject of blogs, you’ll have gathered that I’ve been having continuing problems with the new version of Blogger. My apologies – and thanks for your patience. My webmaster is now back to help me get things sorted out - hence the new layout. There are still some issues to iron out, but I hope that both the blog and my website will be looking better and more up to date before Christmas.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Oliva Reader

Spangle, who has kindly contributed quite a few comments to 'Do You Write Under Your Own Name?', has a blog herself, which I've belatedly added to the blogroll. She invited me to contribute a piece to her 'Chapters in My Life' series, and this is the link to her blog.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Forgotten Book - Bennett

My Forgotten Book for today was published in 1977. Desmond Cory (a pseudonym) was a prolific writer of thrillers who occasionally dabbled in psychological suspense. Bennett was his last foray into that field, and I suspect that it was not a particularly successful book. It is, however, by any standards a pretty extraordinary piece of work.

Part of the book takes the form of a journal, ostensibly written by a detective novelist called William Bennett.  He has gone missing in Spain, and a young cop called Hunter has come out to try and find him, in connection with the death of an au pair girl back in Britain.

The case has some echoes of the Lord Lucan case, but Cory’s concern is not to offer a “solution” to that famous mystery, but rather to indulge in an intellectual game with the reader. Are there two journals, are there two men claiming to be Bennett? And does Hunter have a close personal connection with the man he is... hunting?

I first read this book not long after it came out. I was disappointed by its anti-climactic nature, and I suspect most other readers shared my frustration. At least one reviewer described the book as boring. But on re-readng it, I had more sympathy with Cory’s attempt to do something very different with the crime novel. It’s certainly intelligent, original and unrepeatable. And there are some fascinating allusions to classic detective fiction – such as The Wraith, an  obscure book by Philip Macdonald – which are not fully developed, but which somehow give the book a bit more depth. Bennett may be a failure, but it’s an intriguing failure and is well worth inspection – as long as you don’t expect the orthodox.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Devil - film review

Whilst on holiday recently, I had the opportunity to watch the recent movie Devil and I found I enjoyed it immensely. It’s a modern film, and yet it has some distinctly classic elements. So when, after watching it, I read about the film on the internet, I wasn’t surprised to learn that M. Night Shamaylan, one o the team behind the film, and famous for the spookiness of his work, acknowledged that the story involved a nod to Agatha Christie.

More than a single nod, in fact. The main story is a riff on And Then There Were None, but in the dialogue there is also a hint of the plot-line from The ABC Murders. Suffice to say that I thought the film-makers used the Christie inspiration pretty well.

The story is taut (the film only lasts 80 minutes, and the brevity of the film helps to ensure that the intensity of the narrative is maintained) and compelling. An elevator in a skyscraper gets stuck and it seems that Satan is in there along with the five passengers. One by one, they meet grisly ends.

None of the actors was familiar to me, but they all did a decent job, and I felt that the film was well done, and the story presented in compelling way. The claustrophobic environment of the elevator in particular is beautifully conveyed. Devil is a world away from Fatal Descent, an elevator based novel I discussed here recently. But it’s much better than the Golden Age book by John Rhode and Carter Dickson, and, despite the lurid nature of the plot, it is strangely more credible.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

End In Tears

I have written before in this blog of my huge admiration for Ruth Rendell. At one time, I had read every novel and short story she'd published, both under her own name and as Barbara Vine. In the past 10 years or so, however, I've missed a few titles, and I've rather felt that (with a few notable exceptions) her most recent books have not quite reached the remarkable standards of excellence that she set in the past. But she remains a gifted writer, and I'm keen to fill in the gaps.

I decided that I'd try an audio book version of one of her Wexford stories, and was tempted by End in Tears, especially as it was read by Christopher Ravenscroft, who was so good on television in the role of Detective Inspector Mike Burden. I really like the Wexford series, and I also admired the performance of the late George Baker as a very believable television Wexford.

Again, however, I have felt that there has been something of a falling-off in the more recent Wexford books. For my taste, Rendell became a little too anxious to shove some social comment into the stories, and in such a long-established series, this occasionally seems a bit awkward and unconvincing. But I make this observation simply because I think Ruth Rendell is such a fine writer that she ought to be judged by the most demanding standards (most of the rest of us need justice to be tempered with a liberal dose of mercy!)

End in Tears is a well-constructed mystery, although not ideally suited to audio book abridgement, which led to a slightly fragmentary narrative and perhaps too many characters. The social comment element here is about surrogacy, and I found this fairly interesting. But the actual murder motive was, to my mind, genuinely fascinating, and neatly concealed. This book may not rank with the best of Wexford, but it is still enjoyable and I'm glad I've caught up with it at last.

The Resident

I started watching a 2010 movie, The Resident, with high hopes. It’s a short thriller from Hammer, starring that very appealing actress Hilary Swank. She plays a doctor who does a lot of running to exercise her mortification at having split up with her philandering ex. She decides to move apartments, and finds a new home that is full of character and remarkably cheap.

There is a ‘but’, of course. As soon as we meet the owner of the building, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, we somehow suspect (for this is scarcely an original situation) that, for all his superficial likeability, he may well turn into a deranged killer. This impression is confirmed when we find that his strange granddad is played by – yes! - Christopher Lee.

Short the film may be, but I’m afraid that for me, it was still too long at an hour and a half. I thought the screenplay was clunky as well as predictable, with a long-winded flashback killing suspense quite early on, and although visually the film is quite effective, with the weirdness of the building well evoked, overall it was a dreadful waste of the talents of three excellent actors.

Aspects of the story are salacious, voyeuristic, and gory, and although very good films can be composed with such elements The Resident is too crassly put together to survive its flaws. It hasn’t received generally good reviews, and even some of the indifferent notices strike me, I’m afraid, as rather on the generous side. Very disappointing.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Cry of the Owl - movie review

John Curran recommended me to give a try to Cry of the Owl, a 2008 movie based on Patricia Highsmith's book, written nearly 50 years ago and previously filmed, in a version I haven't seen, by Claude Chabrol. It's an interestingly different film, and you can never be sure how things are going to develop.

As so often with Highsmith, the characters behave oddly. A man called Forester, played by Paddy Considine, who has suffered depression and is getting a divorce from his gorgeous but rather unpleasant wife becomes obsessed by a couple who live in an isolated house in the woods. He spies on them, but in a curiously innocent way. The couple's relationship is in difficulty, and one night Jenny, the woman, played by Julia Stiles invites in the watcher. This is unexpected enough, but soon she starts stalking him. Her lover takes this amiss, and in a struggle, Forester hits him, but doesn't kill him.

However, the man disappears, and before long Forester is suspected of his murder. His world continues to fall apart. Jenny commits suicide and someone tries to kill Forester. The police react disbelievingly and he is suspended from work. I found a lot of this implausible, to say the least. And yet, strangely, I remained intrigued and wanted to find out what would happen next.

Suffice to say that the story didn't become any more plausible - far from it - but despite its flaws, I was glad I watched it. There was one nice twist and Considine's performance is very watchable. He is an actor with a good line in innocent weirdness.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Forgotten Book - The Players and the Game

I first read Julian Symons’ 1972  novel The Players and the Game as a break from A Level exams revision shortly after it first appeared. I was a huge Symons fan then – as I still am – and I really enjoyed the book. A welcome distraction which did me a lot of good at the time, despite its grim subject matter. So I wondered how well it would stand up to re-reading.

The answer was – extremely well. I now knew the trick solution, but this time had the chance to admire how Symons concealed it from the reader. This is a book influenced by true crimes – notably the Moors Murders – where two people combine to wreak homicidal mayhem. I’m one of the many who have more recently written such a story, but few of us have matched Symons’ skill.

The book opens with an extract from a journal written by a mentally disturbed man who confuses himself with Count Dracula/Bela Lugosi, and meets a woman who sees herself as Bonnie Parker. The action then switches to a husband and wife buying a house; Paul Vane is a personnel manager who is moving to be nearer his work, but the  move proves to have disastrous consequences.

Two young women go missing. One eventually turns up, but it soon becomes apparent that a serial killer (or, rather, two serial killers) are on the loose. Symons shifts viewpoint rapidly, introducing a good many characters, but he sketches them with great clarity. Which man and which woman form the killer couple?

It’s a really ingenious story, as clever as most Golden Age efforts, but it’s worn really well, with only a couple of aspects that seem dated. Symons explores the way that people wear masks to conceal their identities, and also provides a bleak picture of a man, Paul Vane, whose life falls apart. This is a really excellent mystery, much shorter than most present day serial killer stories and the better for it. I can’t understand why it isn’t more widely known. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Ten Little Indians movie review

To be perfectly honest, I was expecting to hate the 1965 movie version of Agatha Christie's masterpiece And Then There Were None. Which is why I've managed to avoid watching it until now. But I decided to bite the bullet, and to my surprise found the film surpassed my admittedly low expectations.

The setting is a country house, of course, but this one is to be found at the top of an Alpine mountain accessible only by sleigh and cable car. The servants who greet the guests who have been invited by the mysterious U.N. Owen are locals, and when Owen's voice is played on a tape recording, I discovered that the uncredited actor who spoke the words was Christopher Lee (in a later version of the film, Orson Welles did the same job.)

The cast is pretty good, including Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price and Wilfrid Hyde White, as well as the ultra-glamorous ex-Bond girl Shirley Eaton, who gets to play a sex scene, albeit mild in the extreme, with Hugh O'Brian.

A notable feature of the movie is the 'whodunit break', an updated version of the Challenge to the Reader introduced in the Golden Age by Ellery Queen and also used by the likes of Rupert Penny and Anthony Berkeley. A gimmick, yes, but a pleasing one, at least to my mind. I enjoyed this film more than I should have done, perhaps. It ain't Martin Scorsese, but as light entertainment, it ain't that bad, either.

Monday, 28 November 2011


I’m just back from a delightful week-end taking part in the Newcastle Winter Books Festival. It’s really only in the past three or four years that I’ve started to get to know the North East, and I must say that Newcastle grows on me each time I visit the city.

I took part in two events, both of them held at a wonderfully atmospheric venue. The Lit and Phil is a fascinating library and great gathering place for people keen on the arts right in the centre of the city. Kay Easson of the Lit and Phil is very welcoming, and if you live in the area, and you aren’t a member, it’s surely worth considering. 

I gave a talk on Agatha Christie on Saturday afternoon, and this was followed by the premiere of my latest murder mystery event, this time set in the 1920s. Both were very well attended, and I was really pleased to be part of the Festival.

On Friday evening I stayed with Ann and Tim Cleeves in Whitley Bay, and on Saturday evening I had a meal with Jean and Roger from Cornwell Internet, an excellent website business. Great mates and great company, all combining to make a memorable couple of days.  

Friday, 25 November 2011

Forgotten Book - Tour De Force

Tour De Force by Christianna Brand, first published in 1955, is today a Forgotten Book, perhaps because, after it appeared, the author turned away from the genre for a number of years. But many connoisseurs think highly of it.

The novel features Brand’s most regular detective, Inspector Cockrill, and also a character who appeared in an earlier mystery (and therefore seems by definition to be an unlikely killer)  but the setting is unusual – a fictitious island off the Italian coast. Cockrill is part of a tour party, and Brand clearly enjoyed writing about the island, as she set a subsequent book there as well.

A member of the tour party is found dead. She has been stabbed to death with a dagger, and there is a suggestion that she may have liked to indulge in blackmail. She was also at the centre of some romantic convolutions, involving one of the suspects, Leo Rodd. Rodd is a one-armed musician who appears highly attractive to women, although he was so unpleasant that I struggled to figure out why any of them would bother with him. A map is supplied in the best Golden Age tradition.

A fairly obvious solution to the murder mystery is put forward, but then Brand supplies a clever and unexpected (at least by me) twist – although it depends on something so unlikely that I didn’t find it easy to suspend belief. There are various pleasing features in the book, not least the setting, but I’m afraid that Brand’s novels seem to me to suffer from a recurrent weakness. There is always a closed circle of suspects, which is fine, but those suspects always seem to succumb before long to “rising hysteria” and their highly-strung behaviour and chit-chat rather gets on my nerves. So it was here.

However, Brand’s skill with plot was formidable. She isn’t too far behind Christie and Berkeley in that respect and I also gather that in person she was truly charismatic. To my mind, her short stories tend to be more satisfying than her novels, because they are punchier and the characters in them don’t have time to grate on the reader. One of these days I will say more about her short stories, but for now I’ll rank Tour De Force as well-constructed, but a long way short of a masterpiece.  

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Guilty Consciences

I have finally received my copy of the brand-new Crime Writers Association anthology that I have edited. Guilty Consciences is published by Severn House, who have built up a very impressive crime list, and I must say that the dust jacket artwork is very much appeals to me. (Sorry I haven't been able to expand the image to make it more easily viewed - I'm still failing to get to grips with various aspect of posting on the updated Blogger system, as will be all too evident to those of you who have no doubt spotted a few glitches in the past couple of months....)

The book boasts a foreword by the bestselling novelist Peter James, who also contributes a brand-new story. Peter is the current chair of the CWA, and I was delighted to be able to include a story by one of his most distinguished predecessors, the late Harry Keating. Harry edited a couple of CWA anthologies, and as a tribute to him, I wanted to include one of his stories. Happily, his widow Sheila Mitchell was generous enough to locate and provide an obscure but very agreeable story about Inspector Ghote which had previously only been published in India.

There are a number of other delights in the book. We have, for instance, a story by that very distinguished writer Robert Barnard, and also a terrific story by Ann Cleeves featuring Vera Stanhope. But one of the great pleasures for me about editing these anthologies is the chance to include work by very good writers who are either not especially well known (yet) or who have not in the past focused on short stories.

A number of the contributors were persuaded to take a break from their novels to make submissions to the anthology, and they included Claire Seeber, Len Tyler, Sarah Rayne and Dan Waddell. I hadn't read short stories by any of them previously, but I was really delighted to read, and include, their contributions. The result, I very much hope, is a book which lives up to the high standards of the anthology over the past half-century, whilst giving it a fresh and distinctive identity of its own.

The Town - movie review

Films about bank robberies run the risk of following a formula, and one of the things that I enjoyed about the 2010 movie The Town was that it offered a fresh (at least to me) variation on the theme. In this film, the smartest of the robbers does something not very smart – he falls in love with the manager of the bank he has just robbed. Mind you, given that the manager is played by the very attractive Rebecca Hall, it's not entirely an implausible plot twist.

The film is set in Boston, and the "town" of the title is Charlestown, an area apparently associated with violent crime, although on one view, that negative images unfair and out of date. I don't know the truth of it, but I must say that, the more I see of Boston in the movies, the keener I am to visit the city one day. I get a very strong impression of a truly fascinating place.

Ben Affleck directs the film and also plays the lead character – very effectively and sensitively, I thought. His backstory is neatly conveyed, without slowing the action, as is his relationship with his fellow criminals. The mastermind behind the robberies is, of all things, a florist (that was a touch of imaginative storytelling that I enjoyed!) played by Pete Postlethwaite, who is very well cast as a menacing villain. Postlethwaite, who died of cancer earlier this year, is an actor who always made a strong impression, and he's a real loss to the cinema.

I found this film gripping throughout. I've seen one or two reviews that compare it to Heat, starring Al Pacino, but personally I thought The Town was significantly better. Affleck and Rebecca Hall are both highly charismatic, and Jon Hamm does a good job as the detective pursuing them. Among heist films, I'd rate this one very highly.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Killing II - review

The Killing II started on BBC Four this week-end and I made sure I watched it. I missed out on the first showing of the original cult hit series from Denmark The Killing, a gap in my TV viewing I mean to fill as soon as I can, given the enormously positive reception it received.

So what do I make of the follow-up? Well, the first two episodes were extremely watchable (the more so by comparison, since the previous night I’d watched a rubbishy film called The Resident which was shorter than the two hour-long episodes but was so annoying that it felt as though it might never finish).

The story is a mix of the personal and the political, a bit like the recent UK series Hidden, but better. A woman is found murdered in bizarre circumstances. Her husband is a suspect, but it soon seems that there may be a link with a second killing. The woman was a military lawyer who worked in the Middle East, the man was an ex-soldier. A third strand of the story involves another ex-soldier, now confined to an institution and mysteriously denied his release.

The structure of The Killing II reminded me of the early series of Taggart. Three or four enigmatic story-lines, connected in some (we hope) ingenious way. And, as in the Glaswegian series, dogged detective work, this time by Sarah Lund and Ulrik Strange.  The suggestion at the moment is that Muslim fundamentalists are responsible for the killings, but we don’t really believe that, do we? Could the military man who is father-in-law to the institutionalised bloke be key to the story? That’s my bet at the moment, but we shall see. I certainly plan to keep watching.

Festival Time

I seem to be here, there and everywhere at the moment. Yesterday was truly enjoyable:  I visited a pleasant library with accompanying museum in Buckley, North Wales, and next week-end I’ll be up in the North East.

I’ve been invited to participate in the Newcastle Winter Book Festival, and next Saturday I shall be involved in two events. Both are to be held at a fabulous venue, the Lit and Phil, an amazing and atmospheric library which I last visited nearly three years back. In the afternoon I’ll be giving a talk on Agatha Christie and Golden Age detective fiction, and in the evening, there will be the premiere of a brand new interactive murder mystery event that I’ve just written.

But there’s much, much more to the Festival than my two events. The programme is packed and impressive and I’m gratified to be part of it. As well as my Murder Squad mates Chaz Brenchley and Ann Cleeves, events will feature the likes of M.C. Beaton, Allan Massie and Tam Dalyell. 

This is the first year of the Festival and I hope it gets plenty of support so that it grows  and grows in the years ahead. If you are in that part of the world, do check it out.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Forgotten Book - Plain Murder

I so much enjoyed reading the re-discovered crime novel by CS Forester, The Pursued, that I decided to have another look at his second novel of psychological suspense, Plain Murder, which was first published in 1930. It is a book which, like his debut, Payment Deferred, has tended to be forgotten by crime fans – but it certainly does not deserve such a fate.

I first read Plain Murder as a teenager, shortly after being blown away by the brilliance, as it seemed to me, of Payment Deferred. Perhaps inevitably, it suffered by comparison with its remarkable predecessor, and I have said as much once or twice in articles I've written over the years. But I'm now tempted to revise my opinion to some extent. The finale of this story is not quite as dazzling and original, but the book as a whole is short, snappy and highly enjoyable.

Three advertising men have been discovered by their boss in a minor fiddle. They face the sack, and the poverty that dismissal for gross misconduct almost always meant in 1930. The ringleader, Charlie Morris, persuades his colleagues to help him kill the boss, and they duly get away with murder. However, the crime feeds Morris' egotism, and he finds himself on a downward spiral of homicide.

One of the striking features of the book is the well-realised office setting. I can think of very few office-based mysteries written before 1930 – any suggestions? Certainly, Forester anticipated Dorothy L Sayers, who published Murder Must Advertise three years later. Her enjoyable novel is much better known than Forester's, but I do wonder if his book to some degree inspired hers.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

London Boulevard - film review

It's not very easy for a gangster film to avoid cliches of the genre, and I was rather worried when the 2010 movie London Boulevard began in a way strongly reminiscent of The Italian Job. A London criminal (Colin Farrell, rather than Michael Caine) is released from prison, and a celebration is laid on for him by his friends before he is offered the opportunity of "one more job".

At this point, however, the script takes off. It is based on a novel by Ken Bruen and the title is a spin on Sunset Boulevard. A pretty girl introduces Farrell to a retired actress, and he takes on the task of looking after her at a time when she is besieged by the paparazzi. But the actress is no Norma Desmond – she's played by Keira Knightley.

Unfortunately, Farrell gets mixed up with the activities of a tough criminal played by (inevitably?) Ray Winstone, and before long he has good cause to be worried about the safety of his beautiful but totally flaky sister – a very good part for yet another gorgeous actress, Anna Friel. The plot developments come thick and fast as Farrell also sets out to avenge the brutal murder of a disabled friend of his by a couple of young hoodlums. An irony of the story is that, on one occasion when Farrell resists the urge to mete out violent retribution, he lives to regret it.

There is a good deal of violence in this film, but the quality of the screenplay is such that it never seems to become gratuitous. I've read a number of deeply unenthusiastic reviews of this film, but the negative reaction of some critics really surprises me. I think London Boulevard is one of the best films about gangsters that I've ever seen.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Marrakech and Murder

I’m just back from a quick trip to – of all places – Africa. Morrocco, to be specific, and Marrakech to be even more precise. It was really an impulse decision to go off for a long week-end in search of a bit of sun before the run-in to Christmas, and very enjoyable it was too. I’ve never been to Africa before, but I was very taken with what I found.

I can’t recall ever reading a crime story set in Marrakech, though I’m sure there must be some; perhaps my memory is at fault. Any suggestions of titles? I’d really like to try a book set there. And there are surely bound to be plenty of thrillers set in Morocco. Certainly, it’s an atmospheric city; the souks are amazing, and I also saw my very first snake charmer. Not that I took a photo of the snakes, mind; you never know how they might react!

I read two contrasting books on the trip. I’ll be reviewing both The Players and the Game by Julian Symons and Tour De Force by Christianna Brand shortly. I’d read the Symons before but admired it all over again. Both books were highly ingenious – but Symons’ cleverness at plotting is sometimes overlooked by those who focus mainly on his criticisms of some classic detective novelists.

As for Brand – my feelings are mixed, in that I admire her work a good deal, yet find some of her writing rather frustrating. She and Symons were friends and contemporaries, but she was hurt when he gave one of her books a less than glowing review.  He described her approach as “hectic”, which isn’t the adjective I’d use, but there are, I think, reasons why she is much less well remembered today than her talents would have justified. More of this another day.   

Monday, 14 November 2011

Betty Fisher movie review

When I visited John Curran in Dublin, I had not only the chance to admire his book collection, but also his very wide-ranging collection of DVDs, and he recommended a number of films to me that I'd never even heard of before. Among them was a French film, directed by Claude Miller with the frankly unpromising title Betty Fisher and Other Stories.

I was startled to find that the film is based on a novel by Ruth Rendell. The source book is Tree of Hands, a suspense story I enjoyed reading when it first came out. But that was a long time ago, and I must admit I've forgotten how the story goes. That was probably an advantage, given that Betty Fisher focuses on the core themes, but with many changes of detail.

To some extent, it's a story about maternal instincts, as well as about grief and guilt. Betty is a successful novelist with a crazy mother. When her son dies in an accident, her mum kidnaps another child, whose mother is an occasional prostitute, and who doesn't seem to miss him much. The strands of the two women's lives intertwine time and again, ultimately with bloody results. The use of coincidence is very typical of Rendell, but the treatment somehow seems very Gallic, and the effect is rather stylish.

It's one of those films where you really can't be sure what is going to happen. I found I just about believed in the story, despite various implausibilities, and it certainly kept me gripped from start to finish. An odd movie, perhaps, but a good one. John is a sound judge!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Forgotten Book - The Pursued

My forgotten book for today is a rarity – a lost book that has just resurfaced and been published for the very first time, 76 years after it was written. The Pursued is the third crime novel C.S.Forester wrote before he turned his attention away from the genre.

His crime debut, Payment  Deferred, is a bleak masterpiece, and Forester really could write – anyone who dismisses him because he is best known for his naval tales about Horatio Hornblower is making a mistake, in my opinion. In The Pursued, he evokes the desperate gentility of suburban life between the wars with great skill, and his characterisation is excellent.

Marjorie Grainger returns home one night to find that her sister Dot has gassed herself. At least, the inquest verdict is suicide, but it turns out Dot was pregnant, and Marjorie begins to fear that her randy, aggressive husband Ted was responsible for both the pregnancy and the death. But Marjorie is a weak woman in many ways, unwilling to act. Very different is her mother, Mrs Clair, who embarks on a relentless yet ultimately incoherent plan to achieve revenge....

This is a terrific read, with elements drawn from true crime cases, including the Crippen story. I did feel that the latter stages of the novel were rather hurried, as though Forester wanted to get back to his naval stories. But I really enjoyed The Pursued and to my mind it’s a milestone in the genre’s history. Thank goodness the manuscript, lost for so many years, finally turned up.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity is a low-budget movie that has achieved a great deal of popularity. Rather like The Blair Witch Project, it’s a wobbly-camera film, with little-known actors. And it’s also quite good at building suspense.

The set-up is simple. A young couple, Katie and Micah, have moved in to a nice new home, only to find that Katie is pursued by the eponymous activity. They call in an expert, only to find him less than helpful. Micah’s big idea is to buy a camera so that he can film whatever is happening in their home. And the action takes place through the camera lens. So we get a great deal of inactivity, punctuated by bursts of drama.

The relationship between the characters is well done, and in many ways is the best part of the film. As doubts rise to the surface, their contented life together comes under fatal pressure. This is at least as gripping as what is happening in the house, which – one guesses – will not be clearly explained at the end.

I thought this was a good film, although not as brilliant as its reputation might suggest. Perfectly watchable, though, and with a climax that leaves the way open for a sequel.

Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin

Bruce Montgomery was the real name of the detective novelist Edmund Crispin, who wrote his first novel while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. I read his most famous book, The Moving Toyshop, when I was about 14, some time before I thought about going to university. It's a book full of high spirits, which makes good use of the Oxford setting. It appealed to me more than Gaudy Night, that's for sure.

Crispin was influenced by John Dickson Carr, rather more than by Michael Innes, who wrote even more stories with an Oxford background, and I must say Carr is more to my taste than Innes, because the mystery plots are more compelling. But Crispin produced nothing for many years, and when his amateur sleuth Gervase Fen finally reappeared, I found The Glimpses of the Moon a sad disappointment.

David Whittle's sympathetic biography, Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin: a life in music and books, explains the downward trajectory of his subject's life. He was an alcoholic, who suffered a good deal of ill health in his later years. It's a sad story, and his rather inept love life sounds rather depressing.

And yet he achieved a good deal. Not only those excellent early mysteries (though as a crime novelist he was burned out at 30) but also light music - he wrote often for films, including Carry On and Doctor movies. He was friendly with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, and in some ways as talented. Whittle gives a good deal of insight into a life that began brilliantly, but all too soon entered a decline. A pricey but worthwhile biography.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Wake Wood - movie review

It's a long time since I read much horror fiction, although in my teens I devoured a number of the short story collections published by Pan, Faber and Fontana. As for horror films, many of them seem obsessed with gore and violence, so I usually give them a miss. But fictional horror at its best can be terrific, as Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson and others have shown.

My favourite horror movie is The Wicker Man, and the very recent film Wake Wood does have some echoes of its brilliant predecessor. The only daughter of a vet and pharmacist is mauled to death by a dog, and in an attempt to cope with their overwhelming grief, the couple move to a small and remote village where they can try to rebuild their life together.

However, it soon becomes clear that there are dark goings-on in the nearby woods. Somehow, the villagers have discovered the secret of bringing a person who has died within the last 12 months back to life – but for three days only. And there are some rather spooky conditions to be met by anyone who wants to avail themselves of this chance to say goodbye for the last time.

Needless to say, the couple cannot resist temptation, and enter into a sort of Faustian pact, which has foreseeably terrible consequences. It's hokum, of course, but done surprisingly well, and the final scene is genuinely memorable and chilling. Much of the power of the film derives from the performances of Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle as the bereaved couple, and of Timothy Spall, who presides over the village's rituals with a mixture of geniality and menace that avoids the risk of over-acting the part into absurdity. Although there are some graphic scenes, I would recommend this film to horror fans. It isn't in the same league as The Wicker Man, but it's still a pretty good example of its kind.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Oxford Today and Crime Fiction Reviews

Why is it that some books attract more attention than others? I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer. I’ve written at least one book – Take My Breath Away – that I thought was good but which made little impression on reviewers. But, thankfully, the Lake District Mysteries have done better. And, when you’ve been around for a long time, it is often hard to get attention for your  work.

The Hanging Wood has now become one of my more successful books in terms of reviews. It’s attracted favourable attention in The Times and The Literary Review, a column in The Guardian, and pleasing comments elsewhere, here, in the US, and on Amazon. And now it’s been highlighted in Oxford Today, a glossy magazine with a big readership: “stylish writing and a gripping plot make the perfect crime thriller.”

I’m very gratified, since reviews do matter. And the merit of positive reviews is that they are good for morale and motivation. There’s no doubt that, this week-end, I’ll write with greater zest because of this latest review.

And this is something I bear in mind when reviewing the books of others, especially those of living writers. It’s not about offering constant praise without a single caveat, because that tends to devalue the review. But I do like to look for the positives, especially with writers who aren’t best-sellers, and who deserve to be better known. Above all, I think it’s right to try to review a book on the basis of what it is trying to achieve, rather than what it isn’t.

Friday, 4 November 2011

That Woman Opposite

Today - a forgotten film, based on a relatively forgotten book. I have John Curran to thank for recommending that I take a look at a 1957 black and white mystery movie, That Woman Opposite (the title seems very dated now, doesn't it?) I'd never heard of it before, nor did I realise that a John Dickson Carr novel had been adapted for film. The book was The Emperor's Snuffbox, which I haven't read, so I'm not sure if it's faithful to the original.

The cast is very good. Wilfred Hyde White, whom I always enjoyed watching, plays an old buffer who collects pricey antiques. His son is played by Jack Watling, who long ago starred in a TV series called The Plane Makers which I distantly recall my Dad watching avidly. And his daughter is played by...Petula Clark, whom I associate more with that great song 'Downtown'.

The old chap witnesses a crime committed by a bad hat (William Franklyn, best known for the Schweppes ads of the 60s) who is the ex-husband of a pretty woman who is engaged to the priggish son. An insurance investigator takes a shine to her, and we can bet that sooner or later she will succumb to his charm, even though she is about to marry. And then the old chap is murdered, and she becomes the prime suspect.

The story moves along at a decent pace, and although the mystery was more inconsequential than I'd expected (not a locked room in sight) I enjoyed it a lot. One of the better period pieces of its era, I'd say, and if you're looking for an agreeable piece of light entertainment, I'd recommend it to you, as John did to me.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Devil's Priest lives again

Like most writers at present, I find my thoughts much occupied by ebooks. And I'm not the only one. Kate Ellis has used digital publishing to bring back to life her historical mystery The Devil's Priest. So I invited her to tell me, and us, more about it.

'History has always featured strongly in my Wesley Peterson novels, which are set in the modern day but always have an additional mystery from the past somewhere in the background. However, several years ago I wrote a novel set entirely in the sixteenth century during the reign of Henry VIII. As I was concentrating on Wesley and his heavy caseload at the time, it was taken on by a small publisher and a few years ago it went out of print, which was a pity because many of my readers told me they loved it…and even asked when I was going to make it into a series. Because I was busy with other projects, The Devil’s Priest lay forgotten for a while…until the advent of the e-book revolution!

All my other novels have been issued as e-books but, as The Devil’s Priest wasn’t with a major publisher, it fell to me to arrange for it to be brought out on Kindle. My husband and my Systems Analyst son tackled the difficult technical stuff and now I’m very proud to see it there on Amazon, available to my readers at a bargain price.

Although I wrote The Devil’s Priest some time ago I recall vividly how much I enjoyed carrying out the extensive research into life in Tudor Cheshire and Liverpool. The initial idea emerged from the history of my local church. Back in the 1530s, the Rector of Cheadle in Cheshire had a sister who was Abbess of Godstow in Oxford. Her name was Lady Katheryn Bulkeley and, as Abbess of a major religious house, she must have been one of the most powerful women in the land. In the course of my research I found letters written by her to Thomas Cromwell during the dissolution of the monasteries, in which she stood up for the rights of her abbey and her Sisters with a remarkable blend of tact and defiance. On the closure of Godstow Abbey this feisty woman came home to live with her brother in Cheshire where she died in 1559 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church where he was Rector.

With such a strong historical character so close at hand I couldn’t resist giving her a mystery to solve so at the beginning of The Devil’s Priest she receives word that one of her former novice nuns is facing deep trouble in the small port of Liverpool some forty miles away. Of course Lady Katheryn answers the desperate cry for help with dark and sinister consequences.

So, thanks to the development of e-books, readers can again enjoy Lady Katheryn’s perilous investigation. And I hope everyone enjoys reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it!'

Monday, 31 October 2011

Hidden and The Field of Blood - reviews

I’ve caught up with the final episode of Hidden, which I’ve reviewed here before, and also seen another recent BBC TV crime show, The Field of Blood. The contrast between the two was striking.

Hidden first. It was full of action and plot developments, but it all became pretty incoherent. A sad waste of the talents of a cast that included David Suchet as well as the charismatic Philip Glenister.  Disappointing.

The Field of Blood, unlike Hidden, was not originally written for TV. It was a two-parter adapted from a novel by a talented author, Denise Mina, though I haven’t read it. Set in 1982, the story concerns a young woman, Paddy Meehan, who is keen to make her way in journalism.  The abduction and murder of a young boy gives her a chance. But her own youthful cousin becomes a suspect.

The script was an odd mixture. There were some good lines, but the first episode was painfully slow at times, and there was a weird and monotonous insistence that Paddy was fat and plain. Jayd Johnson, who played Paddy, is certainly neither. And I also felt the repellent sexism of the newspapermen was rather unsubtly depicted.  

But the pace picked up, and the second episode was excellent. David Morrissey and Peter Capaldi, in relatively small parts for such notable actors, were very good, but Jayd Johnson was at the centre of everything that worked best. And the story had some interesting things to say about families - also a theme of Hidden. The Field of Blood tried to do less than Hidden, but in the end made much more of an impact.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Was Corinne's Murder Clued?

Was Corinne's Murder Clued? is the intriguing title of the latest CADs supplement, and it is written by Curtis Evans, whose knowledgeable comments will be familiar to readers of this blog. The idea of a supplement to CADS was editor Geoff Bradley's way of publishing pieces of work on crime fiction too lengthy to fit into the magazine itself. Previous authors of supplements include such experts as Barry Pike and Philip Scowcroft.

The sub-title of this supplement is "The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953" and I devoured it with great interest. Curt's idea was to explore how rigidly - or  not - the Club stuck to its professed enthusiasm for "fair play" in clueing detective novels so that readers had a decent chance of figuring out the solutions for themselves. Not surprisingly, there isn't a straightforward answer, but perhaps many will be surprised by the care that Club members devoted to analysing the technical skills of prospective members. They did take it all pretty seriously.

Curt has - lucky man! - been able to read the correspondence of Dorothy L. Sayers with fellow Club members, held at Wheaton University in the US. He has - hard-working man! - noted with a scholar's scrupulous care a wide variety of comments made in the letters which cast interesting light on the personalities of the Club members. Suffice to say that Anthony Berkeley, whose books I so admire, doesn't come out of it all especially well. He was, undoubtedly, a man whose behaviour was a mass of contradictions.

Because this subject is one of great personal interest to me, I found this supplement absolutely fascinating. Would it appeal to others? I think so, because it's about a slice of literary history, not just as the product of very diligent research. For instance, I've wondered why an interesting writer like C.H.B. Kitchin was not a Club member. According to Curt, he was considered for membership, so perhaps he declined to join. The same seems to have happened with Georgette Heyer. There's no mention of Josephine Tey, but I speculate that the same was true in her case.

And finally, that title. It refers to a book by Douglas G. Browne which was dissected by Sayers and her colleagues as they wrestled with the question of whether Browne was worthy of Club membership. There was a lot of doubt about his account of poor Corinne's demise. But he was elected anyway. And I should add as a footnote that the current assistant secretary of the Club is also called Corinne. Which is why I did a double take the first time I saw the title of Curt's supplement! Suffice to say that I hope that his, and Geoff |Bradley's, enterprise attracts plenty of attention and purchases. They deserve it.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Independent bookshops

We all know that independent bookshops have been having a tough time for a number of years, but on Saturday, I had the encouraging experience of visiting two excellent indies that have not only survived the recession, but flourished.

After visiting Lancaster and Kendal earlier in the day, I headed for Ambleside – home, at least for the moment, to Hannah Scarlett – and Fred Holdsworth's nicely located shop, run by Steve with excellent support from knowledgeable assistants. I remember calling in there one miserable January afternoon when I was researching The Serpent Pool, in which some of the action takes place in Ambleside.

Then it was a short drive through Wordsworth country to Grasmere, and Sam Read's shop, run by Elaine, again with keen staff support. Elaine and her husband then kindly invited us to their house, just across the road, for a welcome cup of tea before the journey back down the motorway to home.

Why have Steve and Elaine succeeded when so many others have failed? There is bound to be a combination of reasons. Hard work and determination are musts. Both shops occupy good locations in lovely tourist destinations which don't possess a major chain store such as Waterstones. But there's more to it than that. I was struck by the genuine love that Steve and Elaine have for books, and by the way they command the enthusiastic support of the people who work for them. For any book buyer visiting either of these shops, there is sure to be a genuine welcome, and good deal of well-informed advice and recommendations. And Steve and Elaine are prepared to innovate, selling varying lines from time to time, and showing the kind of enterprise that makes all the difference in a small business. An example is the postcards that Elaine sells, from photographs (of very high quality) taken by her husband.

All in all, my trip left me more hopeful about the future of well-managed bookshops than I have been for a long time. The economic climate present endless challenges, but there is still room for really good retailers, and it was a pleasure to meet so many of them on Saturday.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Death in Paradise - BBC TV review

Death in Paradise is a brand new BBC TV detective drama with some interesting ingredients, and I settled down to watch the first episode tonight with a good deal of optimism. Above all, I was intrigued by the fact that we were presented with – yes! – a 21st century locked room mystery. A sort of Guadeloupe-based homage to John Dickson Carr, if you can imagine such a thing.

A British cop who is working on a lovely little Caribbean island is found shot to death in a sealed panic room belonging to a millionaire. The only two people with access to the panic room are the millionaire and his wife, both of whom are conducting affairs. But which of them is guilty?

Another British cop, DI Poole (no relation to Henry Wade’s cop with the same name) is sent out to investigate. Poole is played by comedian Ben Miller, who is inexplicably grumpy about being posted to a truly beautiful place. The casting gives a clue to the fact that this is a light-hearted drama, a contrast to the bleak and gritty shows that have become over-familiar on our screens. 

The solution to the mystery has a clever twist, and although this show is certainly not in the same league as early Jonathan Creek – which provided a masterclass in scriptwriting -  I found it watchable. After all, given my enthusiasm for impossible crime stories, I’m naturally pleased to see that they are still finding favour with the TV programme makers. Admittedly, there were various flaws in the script, and some of the humour seemed forced. Nor was I really carried away by Miller’s performance, which struck me as less than subtle. I can imagine that some viewers will have been seriously unimpressed. But this was an establishing episode, with seven more to come. As for making a definitive judgment on the show’s  quality, the jury is still out.