Monday, 31 December 2012

Goodbye to 2012

So another year draws to a close. I'm sorry to see the end of 2012, which for me was an extremely enjoyable year for a whole range of reasons. I didn't have a new novel published, or a new anthology out, but both these omissions should be put right next year. And there was, in fact, a lot of activity on the book front, with six Harry Devlins coming back in from the cold as ebooks, with added features, including introductions from various writers more eminent than me. The reappearance of my debut novel, All the Lonely People, as an Arcturus Crime Classic, also gave me a real thrill.

This  was the year when I made a start on improving my work-life balance, or at least the balance between the time I spend on writing and the time I spend as a lawyer. I'm still some way from getting the most out of the change, but things are definitely moving in the right direction. Who knows, I may finally get going properly with Twitter before too long.

I read some marvellous books over the 12 month period, but I'm going to wimp out of making a list of the better ones. Of new or newish books, I'm tempted to nominate Finders Keepers by Belinda Bauer as, if not "the best" of the bunch, then certainly one that has lingered long im my memory. Among novels by friends of mine, it's almost impossible to choose, but Ann Cleeves' The Glass Room was a very enjoyable homage to the Golden Age.Which leads me on to older books,and here again,selecting one out of many seems invidious. Two obscure titles, The Grindle Nightmare by Q. Patrick (thanks to John Norris for supplying my copy) and Nightmare by Lynn Brock were, in their different ways, unexpected and excellent.

The most fascinating non-fiction book I read was Curt Evans' book about the so-called "Humdrum" writers; his diligent research has certainly helped me a great deal in my own researches, and his enthusiasm for previously under-valued writers like John Rhode is noteworthy. Geoff Bradley and Arthur Vidro continue to edit excellent fan magazines on either side of the Atlantic, and I contributed a couple of articles to Mystery Scene, a really terrific crime magazine which is sadly hard to find in the UK, but well worth seeking out.

Best film just had to be Skyfall, which I've only just seen. Expect a rave review shortly. Best TV crime show - Sherlock, quite outstanding. I enjoyed the CWA conference in Southampton, the Northern CWA's 25th anniversary shindig in Pickering, Crimefest and Harrogate, as well as a trip to Agatha Christie's former home at Greenway along with Christie expert John Curran (whose recommendations of good books and films have led to a lot of enjoyment.) The Kidwelly e-festival was also very memorable, though for rather different reasons.

Quite apart from trips on research to the Lakes, I visited new places as different as Ely, Madeira, Almeria and Kotor, at least one of which will be featuring a short story before long. The picture at  the top of the post was taken in Gibraltar, the one beneath it at a street party that was very enjoyable but as close as I got to any real involvement with the Diamond Jubilee, let alone the Olympics (for me, it was a great sporting year for other reasons, because Manchester City and Derbyshire County Cricket Club for once found out how to win a championship!). In addition, I had the great pleasure of staying with a crime fan and his wife for a couple of days in a house with the most stunning collection of rare Golden Age books that I've ever seen. He's even loaned to me some of the rarities I've reviewed, a kindness I much appreciate.

Each year always has its sadnesses as well as its joys. The loss of Reginald Hill and Margaret Yorke was extremely sad, as was the recent death of Maxine Clarke. All three were generous people and Reg had a significant influence on my career. And that matter of generosity prompts my final reflection of 2012. Maxine is one of quite a number of people I've been lucky enough to get to know as a result of writing this blog, and I've gained a great deal from those of you who read my posts - and not just those of you I've met in person. Your feedback and support has given me a great deal of pleasure, and I hope to return the compliment by coming up with some interesting topics for you to chew over in 2013. May it be another memorable year for all the right reasons. 

Friday, 28 December 2012

Murder is Everywhere

After a couple of Forgotten Books last Friday as a bonus, plus today's, the series will resume next year! Today I'm linking to a guest post about my next book, The Frozen Shroud, which I've contributed to an excellent collective blog, Murder is Everywhere. My thanks again to Stan Trollip, one of the many pleasant people I've come to know through attending crime conventions. They really are very convivial events, and for anyone who is a crime fan but has never attended a convention, I do encourage you to make a resolution to give it a go if you can in 2013!

Forgotten Book - Through a Glass, Darkly

I've mentioned Helen McCloy a number of times in recent months, and I was delighted to read another of her excellent mysteries, Through a Glass, Darkly, now reprinted as an Arcturus Crime Classic, which is my Forgotten Book for today. Again it features her amateur sleuth Basil Willing, a likeable psychologist, whose girlfriend introduces him to a strange puzzle.

Faustina (great name!) Coyle is a young teacher in her first term at an exclusive girls' school, Brereton. As the book opens, the head teacher, Mrs Lightfoot, is giving her the sack - but  not giving her a reason. Something very strange is clearly going on - but what? Faustina briefly contemplates taking legal advice (the employment lawyer in me was naturally enthralled!) but decides against it. Instead, she confides in her friend and colleague Gisela, who in turn consults Basil.

There is a creepy atmosphere about this story which adds to its power. What on earth is going on? Can it be that Faustina really has a mysterious double, and is she - or rather, the double - in some way responsible when another colleague dies? The power of McCloy's stories derives from the fact that not only was she very clever in the way she plotted, she also wrote lucid and compelling prose. Every now and then, she digresses into delivering a chunk of information that may not always help the pace of the scene, but it's usually interesting information. Clearly, she was a highly intelligent person and I imagine her as an interesting woman to talk to.

An intriguing feature of this novel is that it is, in fact, an expanded version of a short story that appeared twelve years before the book's publication in 1950. I read the story a long time ago, but had forgotten the solution. And although there is only a restricted pool of suspects,and you may think that the culprit is over-reliant on chance, McCloy writes so engagingly that reservations are quite easy to put aside. A genuine crime classic..

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Restless: TV review

Restless, a BBC TV two-parter which began this evening is based on a novel by William Boyd, and benefits from a marvellous cast, including Hayley Atwell, recently impressive in Falcon, as well as the eternally entrancing Charlotte Rampling. Add in (among others) the excellent Rufus Sewell and the magnificent Michael Gambon, and you were almost guaranteed something watchable.

And Restless certainly was watchable. Even its sedate pace (perhaps a total of three hours is more than strictly necessary to tell the story?) was fairly appealing. So were the various scenes in Cambridge, one of the most photogenic of cities. It's also a city associated with spies, of course, and Rampling played Eva, who in the 1970s reveals to her daughter that she has another identity; the woman her daughter knows was created when Eva was persuaded to join a branch of British Intelligence at the start of the Second World War.

There are two stories: first, what happened to young Eva (Hayley Atwell) during her career in espionage, and second, what happens to Eva in later life.Tension in the latter story-line builds because Eva is convinced that someone is out to kill her. Why this would be, after so many years, is the great mystery of Restless. I'm hoping for a strong and convincing explanation.

Although I have never been tempted to write a spy story, I do rather enjoy them, if they are well written. Spies trade in secrets, and secrets are always interesting. I used to enjoy Michael Gilbert' spy novels, and his stories about Calder and Behrens, for instance; they deserve to be better known. I haven't read Boyd's book, but the screenplay has me engaged, and I'll be watching episode two for sure.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Doors Open: TV review

Doors Open, a TV film based on Ian Rankin's novel, was ideally suited to a screening on Boxing Day - a light and very entertaining thriller, involving an art heist and benefiting from an excellent cast. Three friends, played by Stephen Fry, Douglas Henshall and Kenneth Collard, have varying motives for indulging in an amateur robbery on a grand scale - the theft of valuable paintings from a bank vault.

The trio soon realise that they need professional help, and - needless to say - this is where things start to get tricky. For the career criminal who helps them out is in hock to a nasty English gangster, who is all too ready to take ruthless revenge if he is not paid back what he is owed. The complications increase because Henshall's character is still emotionally involved with a former lover (played by Lenora Crichlow), who just happens to have been brought in to assesss the bank's collection of art before it is sold off.

I've been a fan of Ian Rankin since the early 90s, when I read his first Rebus novel. A few years later, I was delighted to receive from him a contribution to the first CWA anthology I edited, Perfectly Criminal. The story, "Herbert in Motion", won him a Dagger,and that, too, concerned an art theft. So Doors Open had, for me, an added interest.

The jaunty and sometimes obtrusive soundtrack emphasised, perhaps too insistently, that this was a "feelgood" show rather than anything serious, but I found it very enjoyable, even down to the finale, which borrowed a device used in Christie's Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and other Golden Age stories. The acting was good, and there were some funny lines (including reference to the ultimate feelgood heist movie, The Italian Job). When last seen, Henshall was playing the deranged villain of The Secret of Crickley Hall. Soon he will morph into Jimmy Perez in Shetland. He's becoming almost as ubiquitous as - well, Stephen Fry.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

My thanks and very best wishes go to everyone who has read this blog during the past year. May you have a wonderful and peaceful time. I'm very grateful for the kindness so many of you have shown me in 2012 and it's been a great pleasure to meet quite a number of you in person, as well as through cyberspace.

Speaking of which, someone I very much enjoyed chatting to over dinner at Crimefest in May was Stan Trollip, one half of the writing duo Michael Stanley, and he's kindly given me a slot on the terrific Murder is Everwhere blog this week. All being well, I'll be linking to the post on Thursday. Thanks, Stan!

The Secret Life of Wallander

The Secret Life of Wallander, by Stafford Hildred, is sub-titled ‘An unofficial guide to the Swedish detective taking the literary world by storm’. To anyone of a slightly cynical turn of mind (like me) the key word there is probably ‘unofficial’. The author is a successful journalist, whose other books have featured the likes of David Beckham, Rod Stewart and Jamie Oliver, and he writes as an enthusiast rather than as a crime fiction specialist.

The book seems to have been quite hastily written, and I spotted a few oddities and errors, plus a regrettable absence of a detailed list of sources and an index, that one tends to associate with quickly produced ‘scissors and paste’ books. I do miss an index in a non-fiction book - though when, years ago, I had to compile my own index to a legal book I'd written, I did not enjoy the task at all!

Despite the shortcomings of this project, Wallander, and his creator Henning Mankell, are interesting subjects, and Stafford Hildred’s obvious enjoyment of the books featuring the gloomy cop carries the reader through. There are introductory chapters about Mankell, and about the Branagh tv series (the Swedish tv series, which I prefer, is mentioned only in passing) but the meat of the book is to be found in the detailed accounts of the nine Wallander books published in the UK to date.

A final chapter sweeps up related books, such as the one in which Linda Wallander is the central figure. This is not, to my mind, the definitive book on either Mankell or Wallander, but nevertheless it provides a readable overview of a notable crime series.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Forgotten Book - X v Rex

Today the serial killer novel is commonplace, but arguably, its origins are to be found in Golden Age detective fiction. My Forgotten Book for today is one of the very best serial killer stories from the 1930s, X v Rex. Originally the author was named as Martin Porlock, but this was a pseudonym for Philip Macdonald. He had previous as a serial killer novelist, and I covered Murder Gone Mad in an earlier entry in this series. That story does have some merit, but I think X v Rex, which first appeared in 1933, is a superior book.

The key to its success is relentless pace. The way Macdonald shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint, using very short scenes and lots of incident, is very modern. Of course, the style is dated in some ways, but for a book written 80 years ago, it has a remarkably contemporary feel. I also enjoyed the occasional shafts of wit. An example is when Macdonald offers a kaleidoscopic picture of what is going on in Britain at the time of the murders, and mentions that the publisher, Victor Gollancz, "denies that Francis Iles is the pseudonym of Mr Martin Porlock."

One of the other titles given to this book, and which was used in a film version which I haven't seen, is The Mystery of the Dead Police, which really explains what the story is all about. Someone is killing cops, with a great deal of ingenuity. The killer confides in a journal, extracts from which are included, and this gives some insight into his motivation - an advance on Murder Gone Mad, in which the culprit's nature was not handled satisfactorily. Macdonald, as many of his contemporaries were doing, was learning about the craft and structure of a complex mystery through trial and error, and here he shows a great deal of flair. The journal device has been used countless times since then.

Macdonald would later move to Hollywood, and work on screenplays for classic films as different as Rebecca and Forbidden Planet. His lively writing style was ideally suited to the movies, and it is equally effective in this story. The mysterious Nicholas Revel, who assists the police with their investigation, and is also a prime suspect, is a memorable character. All in all, a very enjoyable book. When I re-read it recently, I devoured it quickly and with a great deal of pleasure.


Forgotten Book - Who Saw Her Die?

It's a very long time since I read a book by the late Patricia Moyes. Yet the last time I read her, I really enjoyed the story- Who Is Simon Warwick? - so I was glad to receive a review copy of Who Saw Her Die?, now reprinted as an Arcturus Crime Classic, which is my Forgotten Book for today. Moyes is one of those writers - like D.M.Devine, whom I featured a while back - who was once a mainstay of the Collins Crime Club, but whose work has rather faded out of view since her death just over a decade ago.

Her regular detective is Detective Superintendent Henry Tibbett, whose wife Emmy often plays a significant part in the stories. This novel, first published in 1970, is squarely in the Golden Age tradition, elaborately plotted and boasting a country house murder with assorted family members as suspects. Ageing socialite Crystal Balaclava is celebrating her 70th birthday with a party to be attended by her three daughters and their husbands, as well as her long-time companion. But Crystal believes someone is out to kill her, and Henry and Emmy join the party in a somewhat unlikely attempt to assuage her concerns. Unlikely and also extremely unsuccessful, since Crystal duly meets her end. Has she been poisoned? There is reason to believe that her death might just have been a bizarre accident, but the seasoned crime fan will be sceptical about that...

The story is told very entertainingly, and with flashes of genuine wit; Moyes wrote well. She was clearly very well travelled, and some key scenes are set in overseas locations. Henry vows to resign if he cannot solve the mystery (I'm not sure I found this convincing, despite his failure to save Crystal's life) and matters are complicated when the companion also falls victim to an apparent murder attempt.

There are numerous plot twists which I thought were extremely well handled. With this type of book, you have to accept some improbabilities, but the way suspicion shifts around is cleverly done. There was, though, one concealed relationship which I didn't think was fairly clued. That quibble aside, I felt that this was a first class example of the traditional whodunit. I'll definitely read Moyes again..

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Maxine Clarke

In common with many people, I was shocked and saddened earlier today to learn the news of the death of Maxine Clarke, whose blog Petrona has long been an outstanding resource for crime fans. There are already several wonderful and heartfelt tributes by fellow bloggers, such as Margot Kinberg and Rhian Davies, and I can only echo the sentiments they express so very well.

I had the pleasure of meeting Maxine at Bristol and Harrogate, and found her a delightful person.  We also corresponded often by email, and her comments on this blog were invariably well thought-out and perceptive. Over time, we discovered that we had a number of things in common. Unlike me, though, Maxine was very knowledgeable about scientific and technological matters, and her advice on I.T. and more effective use of the internet and social media was given generously (though probably with a touch of frustration at my inability to translate into practice some of her eminently sensible suggestions.)

My favourite memory of Maxine is probably of an evening when we were in the same quiz team, along with Karen Meek of Eurocrime and others, at Bristol. It was really good fun, a very convivial group. The photo of Maxine and me was taken that evening, and I'm grateful to Karen, on whose blog the shot originally appeared for permission to reproduce it here. Incidentally, the fact that our team, the Euromonkeys, triumphed that night was due in large measure to Maxine's knowledge of the genre, which was very wide. She knew more about Scandinavian crime fiction, for instance, than almost anyone I've ever met..

Maxine showed me a good many kindnesses over the past few years, which I much valued. She is a great loss, above all to her family, to whom she was clearly so devoted.

Blogger, Stats and Comments

A couple of people have contacted me recently to say that they have commented on posts but their comments haven't appeared. Although I moderate comments, I only exclude spam (or offensive comments, and thankfully these almost never arrive - hope I'm not tempting fate there!) So I wonder if it's a more general problem - please could anyone whose comments haven't appeared let me know?

Related (perhaps) is the fact that I have received more spam comments on the blog lately (about ten a week, whereas in the past there were hardly any).. I've also noticed some unusual trends with the statistics provided by Blogger. The blog has, throughout its lifespan, enjoyed a steady increase in page views etc, but in recent times the rate of increase has been very significant. At a rough guess, I'd say page views have at least doubled in the last few months. That rate of increase, in a blog which has been running for such a long time, strikes me as surprising, and I suspect it isn't necessarily due to the merits or otherwise of the blog posts. One possible explanation is that a number of my reviews of TV shows have attracted a lot of views (many more than book reviews - though the Forgotten Books seem to do much better than review of contemporary novels), but there may be other reasons.

Usually I pay little or no attention to blog stats, because I've never been sure how meaningful they really are. However,t I'm wondering if these figures suggest that the blog is attracting much more spam than in the past and if so, whether there is anything I can or should do about it.

One option, which a number of wise judges among you have previously recommended, is to change to another blog hosting system such as Wordpress. I am certainly likely to consider that in 2013, but at this stage, I'd very much welcome any thoughts or suggestions on these issues that you may have. Thanks in advance.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Big Picture - film review

The Big Picture is a 2010 French film based on an American book, the best-seller written by Douglas Kennedy. You wouldn't easily guess that the source material is not European, so thoroughly has director Eric Lartigan put his stamp on the film. And the result is thoroughly watchable. The story-line meanders rather, but that is part of its appeal. You never quite know where it is going, and although the finale is inconclusive,it is by no means irritating.

This sounds like I'm damniing the film with faint praise, but that's certainly not my intention. It's just hard to capture what it is that makes The Big Picture work - and it does work. A large part of the answer lies in the charismatic performance of Romain Duris in the lead role of Paul, one of those people who seems at the start of the film to have it all - but really doesn't. Paul is a successful corporate lawyer with a pretty wife and two children he loves. But his real dream was to make it as a photographer. However, he compromised on his real passion to earn money, giving his wife the chance to make a go of becoming a writer. But she fails to break through, and becomes disillusioned and unhappy.

Paul starts to suspect that his wife is having an affair. He is distracted when his business partner (played by Catherine Deneuve) announces she is terminally ill, and asks him to take over the firm. I couldn't quite see what this development added to the story - perhaps it's more important in the novel than the film. Anyway, Paul is deserted by his wife, and sets out to confront her lover - who just happens to be a photographer.

What happens next leads to Paul deciding to change his identity and pursue a new life, in a remote bit of Montenegro (I liked spotting scenes shot in Kotor, which I visited recently). At long last he is living his dream of becoming a photographer.But he becomes too successful for his own good.

I really like identity swap stories, and this story of a lawyer who dreamed of pursuing his creative interests naturally held some resonance for me! An unorthodox and enjoyable film - recommended viewing..

Friday, 14 December 2012

Forgotten Book - The Impostor

My Forgotten Book for today is another from that talented, and genuinely interesting, writer Helen McCloy. The Impostor was one of her last books, first published in 1976 when she was in her 70s, yet it is a lively, fast-moving story, a thriller rather than a detective story, though there is a neat twist and revelation near the end.

Marina Skinner has married into a rich but rather sinister family. She is involved in a car crash, and when she wakes in a psychiatric clinic, she finds herself effectively a prisoner. Dr Sander, the psychiatrist treating her, is a menacing character and a kindly nurse who tries to help her to escape herself vanishes from the clinic. The chance of escape comes at last when Victor Skinner, her husband, arrives to take her home. There is only one snag - the man claiming to be Victor is an impostor.

This is a great set-up, and the story moves along in a brisk, trust-nobody fashion. Victor, it tuns out, has gone missing, and it seems that the Skinner family business is involved in research into a new and lethal form of laser. We move from a domestic type of mystery, in effect, to international intrigue, with a good deal of cryptoanalysis of a mysterious cipher thrown in.

I felt the second half of the story faltered a bit, partly because I didn't find all the stuff about ciphers as fascinating as McCloy clearly did. In an afterword, she explains - with admirable honesty - that in fact she got one or two things wrong about the cipher in her story, but by the time she found out it was too late to change the narrative. This is a good example of the dangers of excessive complexity. A cipher that a typical reader hasn't a hope of decoding is, to my mind, not worth several pages of discussion, especially when otherwise the pace is excellent. However, there are enough good things in the book as a whole for me to have enjoyed it. Not McCloy's masterpiece, but an enjoyable read, cipher or no.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Choose - movie review

Choose is a 2011 movie that combines many lurid plot elements with a genuinely interesting central idea  - about the importance of the choices that people make in their lives. It also benefits from the fleeting appearance of that fascinating actor Bruce Dern, now a veteran, who has made a career out of playing weird guys. Here he is a dodgy shrink, whose past experiments with "choice therapy" proved ill-advised, to put it mildly.

The film begins by introducing us to a nice suburban family. Unfortunately, a mysterious and deranged killer breaks into their home, and forces the daughter to choose which of her parents should die. The story then switches to a young aspiring journalist called Fiona (Katheryn Winnack) and her father, a cop who has to investigate a developing series of crimes committed by the madman. But Fiona is contacted by the madman, and decides to investigate herself. The madman's motive for his crimes, although naturally far-fetched, is well integrated into the storyline.

Fiona, like one or two other characters in the film is required by the script to do some daft things - most of al when she accepts an invitation from the killer to meet him at a deserted facility that clearly has significance to him. He tells her to "come alone" - and she does. Not a good choice! One is tempted to say that she deserves her fate, although a double twist ending means that her fate is not quite what you might have expected.

I found Choose to be a decent time-passer, but the "choice" theme was not explored deeply enough to make the film truly memorable. The acting was competent - Winnack and Dern, in their very different ways, are certainly watchable - and the film was wisely kept short and fairly snappy. There was just enough originality about the storyline to maintain interest throughout. It would be good, though, to see a film that made more poweful and thought-provoking use of the theme of choice.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Poison Tree - tv review

The Poison Tree, a two-part ITV psychological suspense story, began this evening and certainly proved watchable. I haven't read the book by Erin Kelly on which Emilia di Girolamo's adaptation is based (though I recall enjoying a book with the same title by Tony Strong a few years back - whatever happened to Tony Strong,by the way?) The cast is led by the memorably named (and very good-looking) trio of MyAnna Buring, Matthew Goode and Ophelia Lovibond.

The story begins in the present with Kate Clarke (Buring) greeting her husband Rex (Goode) as he leaves prison after serving a 12 year sentence. We don't know anything about what he has done, but in a series of flashbacks we see the couple being introduced by Rex's wacky sister Biba (Lovibond). Rather like a pair of Ruth Rendell characters, the siblings live in a posh house, but don't work, and clearly have "issues".

At first Biba, Kate and Rex get on swimmingly, but things start to go wrong when Kate finds out about her friends' father, a rich man who has given up on them and wants to evict them from the house. In the present day story, Rex struggles to adjust to life outside, and someone is watching him, Kate and their daughter. Rex is keeping his identity secret, but this seemed wildly optimistic from the start, and it soon becomes clear that the neighbours are suspicious Meanwhile, in the past, events move to a homicidal climax.

The story is intriguing, and this is another of those thrillers that gains added suspense from a spooky Fenland setting. So it will be worth staying with it to find out what's going on (and what went on, years ago.) However, I did have reservations. First, I found it difficult to warm to any of the main characters, and consequently I wasn't as sympathetic to Kate and Rex as I felt I should have been (nor, for that matter, was I convinced by Kate's supposed Warrington accent).. Second, there were one or two aspects of the plot that seemed unlikely, even by the standards of this type of story - where, I think, one has to accept that suspension of disbelief is necessary. For instance, why on earth hadn't Kate and Rex planned more carefully how they would lead their new lives after such a long time apart, if they were so desperate to conceal his identity and what had happened in the past? Perhaps the novel covers these issues more plausibly. Or perhaps satisfactory explanations will be forthcoming in episode two. We'll see.

A Touch of Larceny

A Touch of Larceny is a 1959 movie which remains hugely enjoyable and entertaining to this day. It is based on Andrew Garve's novel The Megstone Plot, but in the film the emphasis is on comedy  rather than suspense, although there is some of the small boat sailing that features so often in Garve's work. The director was Guy Hamilton, whose later work included Goldfinger, and the cast is superb. James Mason, Vera Miles and George Sanders take the lead roles, but the minor charactes are played by such notables as John Le Mesurier, Harry Andrews and a very young Peter Barkworth.

Mason, an actor I always enjoy watching, plays a rakish ex-submariner who is idling his time away in peacetime, working in the Admiralty and chasing pretty women. He bumps into an old acquaintance, played by Sanders (have there ever been two actors as suave as Mason and Sanders? I doubt it) and instantly falls for Sanders' American lady friend, played by Miles (who came to Hitchcock's attention, and had a role in Psycho).

Mason wants to get rich quick, and to get Miles, and so he conjures up a scheme whereby he will appear to be a traitor, causing the newspapers to libel him. He will then reappear and cash in with compensation claims. But of course, things do not turn out to be straightforward.

Amazingly, this is all still rather topical, given current debates about press freedom, and the ways in which reputations can be damaged (nowadays it's not just newspapers in the firing line, but bloggers and tweeters too.) As a lawyer, I'm fascinated by the law of libel. It does worry me that libel can be unintentional, and some compensation awards seem excessive. Equally, it's wrong to destroy people's reputations, and the law does need to protect individuals, not least those who don't have deep pockets enabling them to hire expensive lawyers. Any reform of the law needs to be focused on achieving quick solutions and the containment of cost.

Anyway, back to the film. The decision to concentrate on the comedy element of the storyline is extremely successful. The story moves along at a fast pace, and there are some very nice plot twists. The actors do a great job of making the most of the material. Heartily recommended.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Forgotten Book - The Department of Dead Ends

The Department of Dead Ends is Roy Vickers' most famous book. The eponymous Department is also his most famous creation - a fictional part of Scotland Yard, presided over by Detective Inspector Rason, which collected seemingly trivial and inconsequential bits and pieces associated with unsolved cases, and every once in a while managed to interpret those stray scraps of evidence so as to pin the crime on a hitherto unsuspected culprit.

Julian Symons and Ellery Queen were among the very good judges who lauded the "inverted mystery" short stories featuring the Department, and thanks to their advocacy, these stories are by far the best known of the countless stories that Vickers wrote. Is the praise deserved? I think so. There is an element of formula about the stories, once you have read several, and I think it's best to read them in small quantities. But that's true, in my opinion, of the great Father Brown stories too. You can have too much of a good thing, certainly, but I am quite clear that the Dead Ends stories are good thing.

"The Rubber Trumpet", the first of the stories, is justly famous, but several others are equally good. One story is plainly based on the Brides in the Bath case, while another, the excellent "The Henpecked Murderer", explicitly references the Crippen case. I hadn't read this story before, or been aware of it, and I though Vickers used the elements of the Crippen story very cleverly to create an intriguing tale.

Vickers' preoccupation with snobbery and social climbing is very evident in this collection, happily made available to modern readership by Bello - so much so that one senses he was working out "issues" of his own. The stories are very crisp and entertaining, and some of the writing - for instance, the opening paragraph of "The Yellow Jumper" - is very good indeed. This is a genuine classic.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Murder Squad at Southport

It was great fun to go back to Southport at the week-end for a Murder Squad event at Waterstones. Since the six members of the Squad are based in different parts of the North, it isn't often that we are all in the same place at the same time, and on this occasion Chris Simms couldn't make it, but it was good to see Margaret Murphy, Ann Cleeves, Kate Ellis and Cath Staincliffe again.

The Squad has been doing well. Ann has not one but two TV series on the screens, with Shetland now expected to air in January. And the fact that Margaret and Cath shared the CWA Short Story Dagger for their contributions to Best Eaten Cold and Other Stories, the second and more recent of our two anthologies meant that the book sold especially well on Saturday.

Southport, for readers of this blog who are unfamiliar with it, is a very attractive seaside resort, but unlike so many other seaside resorts it does not have a faded and melancholic air in winter, as it is very good shopping centre. Waterstones was certainly busy in the run-up to Christmas, and we were grateful to Sharon, for organising the event, and to Sharon's son Harry Ovenden for his excellent work as event photographer - he gets the credit for the picture that accompanies this post.

Southport is where I first enjoyed literary success, when a short story I'd written won the annual writers' competition. That story, "Are You Sitting Comfortably?" later appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and a few weeks later I heard that my first novel, All the Lonely People, had been accepted for publication. A happy time. And we had another enjoyable afternoon in Waterstones on Saturday before repairing - needless to say - to a local bar to catch up on everyone's news.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Falcon: The Silent and the Damned -TV review

Falcon continued with the first episode (of two) of the adaptation of Robert Wilson's The Silent and the Damned. I haven't read the novel, so I don't know whether its events follow on three months after those of The Blind Man of Seville, as in the telly version. But one thing is for sure - the entrancing photography has made me want to visit Seville as soon as the opportunity arises!

In the previous story, the first victim's eyelids were removed. This time, it was the victim's tongue that was cut out. To an extent, therefore, it seemed rather as though this was an entry in a "mutilation of the month" competition, but generally, I thought this was a good crime show, pacy and yet at times thoughtful. Marton Csokas continues to excel as Falcon, and Hayley Atwell continues to appeal in the role of his potential love interest.

The storyline this time was rather less clear and crisp than in The Blind Man of Seville,but one reason why that didn't matter too much was the excellence of the cast. It included Bill Paterson (who didn't make much of an effort to hide his Scottish accent when playing a Spanish character, but somehow his charisma meant it didnt' really matter) and Robert Lindsay. I've often been asked who I would, ideally, cast as Harry Devlin, and Lindsay has always been very high on the list,even though now he'd be just a little too old for the part. He really is an attractive actor, with a terrific range. I've enjoyed his work ever since he first appeared, long ago, in that breezy sitcom Citizen Smith.

I finished this episode not really clear what was going on, far less having a clear idea of the culprit's identity and motive. Never mind. Falcon is, at present, proving to be rather addictive television, and it's certainly done Seville's tourist industry no harm at all.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Secret of Crickley Hall - tv review (episode 3)

The Secret of Crickley Hall reached a suitably melodramatic climax this evening, as the third and final episode of the ghost story adapted from James Herbert's novel drew together the strands of its two story-lines, one from 1943, one contemporary. This has been a very popular show - yesterday a fellow writer whose judgment I respect was telling me how much she'd enjoyed it, and I've noted that my review of the first episode has already entered the list of the top ten most viewed of all the blog posts I've written. And since I've written over 1500 so far, that's quite something.

Much of the strength of the show came from the quality of the acting rather than the scariness of the story. When David Warner, playing (for once) a good guy, met his old adversary, played by Donald Sumpter, it was a pleasure to watch two highly accomplished veteran actors at work. Suranne Jones and Tom Ellis were good as the bereaved couple who made the mistake of taking a break from their ordinary lives at a place as sinister as Crickley Hall. And Douglas Henshall was such a nasty chap as the deranged Augustus Cribben that it will be fascinating to see how he copes with the very different role of Jimmy Perez in the forthcoming series based on Ann Cleeves' books, Shetland.

I wondered how the scriptwriter, Joe Ahearne, would manage to produce a "happy ending" suitable for the Sunday evening light entertainment slot without making the whole thing unacceptably twee. By and large, I think he managed to achieve the objective. That said, there were one or two elements that didn't quite work for me. For instance, the character of Cribben's dodgy sister wasn't clearly developed, and although there was an interesting glimpse of the (by now, very aged) sister in the present day that was pleasingly macabre, I'd have liked to know more about what she'd got up to since the 1940s.

I've read some very negative reviews of the show, including a rather witty if withering put-down of the early family scenes in episode one ("Alfred Hitchcock doing Outnumbered"). All the same, I'm glad I stayed with it. It doesn't bear comparison with, say, The Innocents, which is still definitely unsettling 50 years on, but it was well-fashioned light entertainment.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Forgotten Book - Let's Pretend

Jacqueline Wilson has become such a huge success as a children's writer that it's easy to forget that she started out as a novelist by writing a handful of rather good crime novels. I remember haunting Blackwell's Paperback Shop when I was a student and there were always a couple of her books in the green Penguin series on the shelves.In those days I yearned to be a published crime writer, and I was impressed that someone who was only about ten years older than me had already established herself in the genre.  I read some of her books at the time, and certainly enjoyed them.

My choice for today's Forgotten Book is Let's Pretend, first published in 1976, At the time the book came out, she was only 31, but already an accomplished writer of straightforward and highly readable prose, telling stories about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people - an approach which she maintained when turning to her first love, writing for children.

This book shows very clearly that interest in children and their perspective on the world. The events of the story are seen through the eyes of 13 year old Emily Barrett, whose mother has recently remarried. When her mother goes missing, Emily, who lives very much in her imagination, immediately suspects her seemingly amiable stepfather of having killed her. But nobody believes her.

I found this story gripping as well as attractively written. It has a modern feel, with only a few small things (like a reference to student grants!) dating it. Most of the action is concentrated in the last few scenes, and I felt that the key plot twist was not foreshadowed as much as I would have liked. But this didn't detract from my enjoyment of a very entertaining story. When Wilson abandoned crime fiction, the genre lost a potential superstar. Happily, children's fiction gained one.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Stepford Wives

I first read Ira Levin's legendary The Stepford Wives when staying with friends - it was on the bookshelf in my bedroom and I devoured it one night before going to sleep (it's a pretty short book). I loved the story, the essence of which is so well known as not to need repeating here at length, save to say that a youngish couple relocate to apparently tranquil Stepford and find that the local  womenfolk are mysteriously subservient to the men. The story was a distant influence on one of the first short stories I ever published in the early 90s. Yet oddly enough I'd never watched the 1975 film all the way through until very recently. (The various sequels to the movie, and the 2004 remake are, according to reviews, best left unbroached.)

Levin was a gifted writer,with a flair for both plot and the evocation of atmosphere, but The Stepford Wives can also be seen as a satire. Not easy to write a book like that, but he managed it with aplomb. The film, with a script by William Goldman, lacks some of the subtlety of the source, but is still very watchable. I've read that Goldman was frustrated that the director, Bryan Forbes, wanted to cast his wife Nanette Newman as one of the wives. Goldman felt that, although Newman is a perfectly good actor, she didn't really fit the Stepford template, and I have to agree. But Forbes prevailed.

The lead role is taken by Katharine Ross, who is perhaps best known as Etta from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which Goldman also scripted.) Ross, a charismatic and beautiful woman, was ideal for the role, and I find it strange that, after those two fine movies, her career did not progress quite as one would have expected.

The men in the film are uniformly unpleasant (inevitable, given the subject matter of the story) and I can't remember Peter Masterson, who plays Ross's husband - a selfish lawyer (oh dear, yet another one!) - from any other film. He does a competent job, but the film belongs to Ross, and the scene where she comes face to face with her nemesis is genuinely chilling. By today's standards, the film is somewhat lacking in pace, but it remains very entertaining, and a fitting realisation of a brilliant idea from a brilliant writer.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Falcon - TV review (episode 2)

The Blind Man of Seville, the first story in Sky Atlantic's new series Falcon, came to an end last week and I've just caught up with the second of the two episodes. I mentioned in my review of episode 1 that the source of the story is a book by Robert Wilson, but I should add that the screenplay is by Stephen Butchard, and even though I haven't read the book, I thought Butchard did a extremely good job in producing an entertaining and watchable show.

I've touched before on the thorny issue of what length works best for a TV cop show. The truth is that (as was depressingly stated on the cover of one of my student law books) there are no "right" answers, but it can be argued that the Morse/Lewis/Vera formula of two-hour stories is more appealing than two parts of one hour each. But the latter format seems to be gaining popularity (DCI Banks is another example) and as long as the screenplay holds the attention throughout, with no sagging (or rushing to cover all the plot elements) in the second episode, it can work very well.

Butchard succeeded so well that I found the second episode even more gripping than the first, despite the unlikely nature of the plot. Suffice to say that the eponymous Falcon was confronted with some unpleasant truths concerning his family, and especially his late parents, as he battled to find the truth about the murderer of three men, two of whom he was close to.

It was all a bit of an endurance test for poor old Falcon, but Marton Csokas performed the role with aplomb and plenty of charisma, and he did have the considerable consolation that one of the suspects, played by Hayley Atwell, fell for him big style. I was amazed, by the way, to discover that Csokas is a New Zealander. It was as much a surprise to me as the solution of many a whodunit!

Monday, 26 November 2012

Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor was a successful 1975 thriller movie, which I saw when it first came out in my long ago student days. I enjoyed it very much at that time, and wondered how it would stand up to a second viewing in 2012, especially as the techno-thriller aspects of the story-line have inevitably been overtaken by time. The answer was that it remains very watchable indeed, a real credit to the excellent director, the late Sydney Pollack, many of whose films I've enjoyed.

The story is based on the debut novel of James Grady (someone I've never read); the book is called Six Days of the Condor. The cast is superb, with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway as glamorous leads, and Max Von  Sydow as a suitably enigmatic assassin. John Houseman plays a minor part as a senior CIA man with his customary gusto.

The set-up is terrific. Redford is a nerdy researcher at a strange kind of library in New York, and just because he pops out of a basement exit to avoid the rain while getting a quick bite to eat, he is lucky enough to escape an attack by a group of gunmen who burst into his workplace and mow down everyone there. Within minutes, Redford is on the run. It turns out that he is in fact a researcher for the CIA. But one of his superiors seeks to lure him into a fatal trap. It seems he can trust no-one.

He therefore kidnaps Faye Dunaway in an attempt to get away - a very good choice of victim, not least because they fall for each other, and she helps him to fight back against those who are out to kill him. We move into fairly standard conspiracy thriller territory, but the pace is well maintained, and although I had some reservations about the later scenes,and the assassin's behaviour, the ending is pleasingly ambiguous.Good entertainment.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Hunted - TV review

Hunted came to an end this week after its eight-week run. I stayed with it until the final unlikely twist, and not only because Melissa George made such a good job of the almost impossible role of gorgeous super-woman Sam Hunter. The best acting, though, came from the admirable Patrick Malahide, who made a superb elderly hard man, bent on revenge for reasons that only became clear late on.

Hunted was devised and written by Frank Spotnitz, the man behind The X Files, and this show had some of the merit of its illustrious predecessor, though there were many differences. Sam Hunter was working for a secretive (and very sinister) security company, and there were various multi-national shenanigans involving a billion pound tender for a dam project, an environmental calamity, and all manner of villains, most of whom had it in for poor old Sam.

I'm not usually very keen on stories lasting as long as eight hours. You need an exceptionally strong plot to keep the viewer interested, and although many good judges tell me that the first series of The Killing was a wonderful success, despite its length, I was slightly disappointed with the follow-up, which lasted for ten rather long hours and felt as if the script needed radical pruning. Hunted was better, because the twists and turns kept coming, and there were a couple of rather excellent twists in the final episode.

I did, however, feel that the last few minutes were rather over the top. A plot device that had been used three times already was repeated yet again, and I also became rather confused by the sheer number of conspiracies that were taking place. Hunted was by no means a masterpiece, but all in all, it was pretty well crafted, and I'm glad I stuck with it.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Forgotten Book - The Sweepstake Murders

J.J. Connington, author of my latest Forgotten Book, 1931's The Sweepstake Murders, was a major figure of the Golden Age and this excellent novel displays his talents at full stretch. Wendover, a country squire who regularly plays Watson to Sir Clinton Driffield's Holmes, takes centre stage here, as member of a nine-man syndicate which wins a sweepstake ticket that proves to be worth almost a quarter of a million pounds.

The death in an air crash of one member leads to litigation from his estate which delays payment of the winnings. The survivors agree that the money should be shared out between those who are alive at the date of the pay-out. This is, needless to say, remarkably unwise, since it provides a compelling motive for someone to start killing off syndicate members.

One member dies - seemingly by accident, and that is the inquest verdict - afte falling down a cliff at the nicely named Hell's Gape. (I'm sure this fascinating geographic feature must have been based on a real place - does any reader have any ideas where it might be? The Chasms on the Isle of Man is the only similar spot I know.) Then another man dies - and again, it seems to be an accident, but we know better, don't we?This is a clever and gripping "who will be next?" whodunit of great complexity, with countless red herrings and gimmicks including faked photographic evidence and forged letters.

I really enjoyed this one, and I'd rate it as probably the best Connington I've read. Because he beleived in "fair play" plotting, he could on occasion be a rather plodding writer, but here the story is packed with incidents and characters, and it does not become bogged down in a morass of detail. The police inspector who does most of the detection needs to investigate photorgraphic and typewritten evidence - in a nice touch, which I very much liked, the culprit's approach to punctuation also plays a part in the unmasking. Strongly recommended for Golden Age fans.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Falcon: The Blind Man of Seville - TV review

Falcon is Sky Atlantic's version of Robert Wilson's novel about the eponymous Spanish cop, and I've just caught up with the first episode of The Blind Man of Seville. This is a book which I haven't read, but I do have a confession; I have possessed a copy for quite a while, but still haven't as yet got round to it. Possibly because I've been intimidated by the sheer bulk of the hardback edition.

Spain is a fantastic country, and the cinematography captures its dazzling colours in vivid fashion. It's a good show simply to look at, except for the gory bits. At the start of the story, a man is bound and gagged, and horrible things are done to him. Before long, our hero Falcon is called in to a murder scene. The victim, Jiminez, is a rich man whose eyelids have been removed. It seems that, before he died, he was forced to watch a home movie.

The obvious suspect is Jiminez's much younger wife, played by the glamorous Hayley Atwell. The marriage wasn't a success; he was a bad man, and consorted endlessly with prostitutes. She was having an affair with a chap who worked for her. When Falcon interviews her, she starts interrogating him about his own marriage. It had collapsed six months earlier. Yep, Falcon is yet another of those dysfunctional loners we mystery fans love rather more than their nearest and dearest do. "Cold-blooded", his (also glamorous) ex-wife calls him.

There is clearly a link between Jiminez and Falcon's deceased father, an artist famous for painting Falcon's mother in the nude. I'm not quite sure how wealthy Falcon is supposed to be, but one would assume he's rich enough not to need to work such long hours. Fortunately, he's devoted to crime investigation, and at the end of this episode he had another mutilated corpse on his hands - this time the last girl Jiminez played around with. Verdict: a very watchable show, and well-paced,with the added bonus of Bernard Hill in the supporting cast.. I really ought to get round to reading the book.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Margaret Yorke R.I.P.

I was very sorry to learn earlier today, via our mutual friend Kate Charles, that Margaret Yorke, one of Britain's most distinguished crime novelists, has died at the age of 88. I'd learned a short time ago from Margaret's family that she was very unwell, news that came as a great shock, given that she was sending me cheery emails as recently as a couple of months ago. I shall miss her greatly.

I've mentioned Margaret numerous times on this blog, and regular readers will therefore know that I was a great fan of her work. I started reading her in the late 1970s, and among my favourites of her books were Devil's Work and No Medals for the Major. The latter marked a change of direction in her writing. She'd begun with romantic fiction, and then wrote light detective novels with Patrick Grant as her sleuth. But her greatest achievements came with stand-alone novels of psychological suspense. She excelled at studies of domestic tension, spilling over into violence, and her characterisation showed profound insight into human nature.

Much later, after I became a published writer, I met Margaret occasionally, not only at the St Hilda's Crime Week-end, which Kate organises, but also when she received the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger to mark her outstanding and sustained achievements as a crime writer. This was a memorable occasion, at the House of Lords, and made such an impression on me that it later gave me the opening scene for Take My Breath Away.

Margaret also contributed a couple of stories to anthologies that I edited, but I came to know her much better in the last few years. The catalyst for this was my research into the provenance of a pastiche of Golden Age detective fiction, Gory Knight, by Margaret Rivers Larminie and Jane Langslow. To cut a long story short, both writers were related to Margaret, and she became as fascinated as I was by trying to fathom how they'd come to write the book and by trying to prove Jane Langslow's real identity. The result was an article published in CADS to which Margaret made a massive conribution.

After that, she offered me much help and advice as regards my continuing researches into the history of detective fiction, and one of her last emails, which arrived out of the blue, was a kind note congratulating me on my foreword to the reprint of Ask a Policeman. I was fortunate to be invited to visit her at her lovely cottage in Buckinghamshire a couple of times, when she made excellent lunches, as well as providing stimulating and convivial company. Age had not dimmed her at all, it seemed to me; she was a truly perceptive woman, with a terrific fund of anecdotes. I am sad to think that there will be no more of those conversations.

Margaret was a strong character, with strong opinions, which she was never afraid to express (she recalled, for instance, once coming to "verbal blows" with that talented writer Michael Dibdin in a radio broadcast, when he made some rather ill-judged criticisms of Agatha Christie, of whom Margaret was a big fan). I found her unflinching honesty wholly admirable, whether or not I agreed with her opinions, (in fact, as with the Mike Dibdin debate, generally I did agree). There were many examples of her kindness and generosity, and it's also worth adding that she did all writers a service with the work she put in to the campaign to secure Public Lending Right.

To lose someone, whatever their age, is hard to take, but Margaret's family and friends will all know that she, and her books, will long be remembered, not only with admiration, but with great affection and appreciation. I am so glad I had the chance to get to know her.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Secret of Crickley Hall - review

The Secret of Crickley Hall, based on a book by James Herbert, began on BBC One this evening, and I thought I'd give it a go, even though I've never read a Herbert novel. That's largely because I tend to associate him with rather graphic horror, but press coverage of the show suggests that the book on which this adaptation (by Joe Ahearne) is based relies more on the suggestion of evil than its vivid portrayal. And this was borne out when I watched episode one.

The starting point of the story is the disappearance of a young boy from a play area when his mother (Suranne Jones, from Scott and Bailey) falls asleep. The loss of a child is one of the most heartbreaking experiences imaginable, and even in a fictional context needs to be handled with a degree of sensitivity, which on the whole I thought the script and cast managed to achieve. Eleven months later, the boy still hasn't been found and she is still in denial. Her husband (Tom Ellis) persuades her and their two daughters to move to the north for a couple of months, for a change of scene around the anniversary of the disappearance.

Given the circumstances, their choice for a getaway is very unwise indeed - a remote spot which rejoices in the name of Devil's Cleave. And they move in to a spooky old stone mansion for good measure! Even worse, it tuns out that one of the neighbours is played by the splendid David Warner, a veteran of so many scary movies that it will be a great plot twist if he turns out to be one of the good guys (he seems to be at present, but it's early days).

Needless to add, spooky things soon start to happen at the house, and there seem to be parallels with a mysterious sequence of events in the 1940s, when the house was a school for orphans run by a brother and sister with distinctly weird personalities and an undue fondness for enforcing strict discipline. The brother (Douglas Henshall) is called Augustus Cribben, which really speaks volumes...

It's very difficult with this sort of material to avoid cliche, and The Secret of Crickley Hall exuberantly embraced most of the conventions of the ghost story. I didn't think that was a problem for Sunday night light entertainment, and I enjoyed the show enough to want to keep watching next week.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Forgotten Book - The Stoat

For today's Forgotten Book, I've picked Lynn Brock's final novel, which was published in 1940, three years before his death. It is called The Stoat, which has to be one of the most eccentric titles in the genre. What's more, it's more or less inexplciable. Brock was a talented writer, though his tendency to over-complicate makes much of his work rather challenging for a modern reader.

The sub-ttile of this novel is another gem: Colonel Gore's Queerest Case. Well, the case is certainly pretty weird. We are introduced at the outset to a man called Margesson, who is plagued by a mentally disturbed wife and two horrible children who have been corrupted by the tenant of a neighbouring bungalow. Margesson consults first a doctor and then his old military colleague Colonel Warwick Gore, now a private detective.

Unfortunately, not only does Margesson soon wind up dead, but so do his dreadful offspring. At first, Gore doesn't take much interest, despite the brutal klling of his client, but a few months later, he is brought back into the still unsolved case, and has better luck this time. A journey to Ireland - the author was an Irishman - plays a crucial part in making sense of a bizarre sequence of events with roots deep in past misdeeds.

The darkness of Brock's books is more fashionable nowadays than it was when they were written, but his sometimes dense, sometimes elliptical style counts against him. This is a pity, for he was an interesting writer, with more flair than many of his contemporaries. He was, in books like this, trying to do something rather different with the detective story, and although the TLS gave him a rave review and suggested his work was reminiscent of Poe,it is a very long time since The Stoat was last in print. A pity, because this strange and meandering mystery novel deserves to be better known. It deserved a better title, too!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Moat Farm Mystery and True Crime

The Moat Farm Mystery, written by M.W.Oldridge,and published by the History Press, is a brand new example of the classic true crime case, thoroughly explored by a dedicated researcher. One of the reasons why the appearance of a book like this is welcome is that studies of classic true crimes - very much in vogue some years ago - seems to have gone out of fashion in recent times. Too many true crime books nowadays focus on lurid accounts of gangsters and gangland that verge on the trashy. Perhaps the pendulum will swing again, resulting in more thoughtful books like this.

The sub-title of the book is "The Life and Criminal Career of Samuel Herbert Dougal", and M.W.Oldridge does indeed cover Dougal;'s life story, rather than just focusing on the case that led to his being hanged in 1903. He was an out and out rogue, who exploited women for years before he finally resorted to murder. Ironically, as Oldridge points out, "Once, Dougal had hoped to become an executioner." Charming chap.

This a fascinating story, full of the flavour of the Edwardian era, as was the Crippen trial, which followed seven years after Dougal's death.. From the outset, Oldridge pays tribute to the Trial of Samuel herbert Dougal in the Notable British Trials series. That particular volume was edited by F.Tennyson Jesse, an exceptionally interesting writer. She says memorably of Dougal's meeting with his victim: "The potential murderer...met the born murderee." Her other work included a study of murder and its motives, and she also wrote The Solange Stories, about an amateur sleuth with a difference. But her masterpiece is A Pin to See the Peep-Show, a novel based on one of the great true crime cases. I ought to write more about that book in this blog one of these days.

For now, though, my focus is on Oldridge's book, which I suspect will appeal to those interested in historic crimes, and stories about villains with a veneer of respectability. I wish the book had included an index; a detailed work of this kind really does need one. But Dougal's story is  remarkable, and it is good to have this fresh account of it.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Reading a Series in Order - and Belinda Bauer

I've posted before about the vexed question of whether or not it matters that a series of books is read in the order of publication. Some fans are very keen to read in order, though the majority of people I've discussed the issue with are fairly relaxed whether or not they read in strict sequence. The question came back to mind when I was reading Finders Keepers by Belinda Bauer.

I've read Bauer's debut, the superb Blacklands, but somehow missed out on the follow-up, Darkside. I was then asked to review Finders Keepers for that excellent website Tangled Web UK, and so I took it away with me on my recent Adriatic cruise. Suffice to say that I was soon hooked and I think this book- although very different from Blacklands - is equally splendid. All the books are set in Exmoor, which is evoked in a suitably atmospheric fashion.

Bauer tells a terrific story about a series of abductions of children, from a variety of viewpoints, including those of two characters she has written about previously. These are police officer Jonas Holly, and young Steven, who in this book meets the girl of his dreams However, I did think that I missed something because I hadn't read Darkside. This, more than most series, probably should be read in order.

All the same, that didn't really spoil my enjoyment or lessen my admiration for Bauer's skill. There is no real whodunit element, and the abductor's identity and motivation is revealed long before the end. In lesser hands, this would be a major structural flaw. But Bauer doesn't only get away with it, she focuses our attention on character and suspense, so that it is possible to suspend disbelief (which, to be honest, you need to do to get the best out of the story) as we follow a dramatic sequence of events quite breathlessly. A very good book from an impressive writer who stands out from the crowd. I really must read Darkside now!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Forgotten Book - My Brother's Killer

D.M.Devine was in many ways a writer in the classic Golden Age tradition, although his first book did not appear until 1961. This was My Brother's Killer, which has recently been republished as an Arcturus Crime Classic. Apparently, Devine entered it for a "don's detective novel" competition run by Collins Crime Club, but having been voted the winner - by judges including Agatha Christie - he was disqualified because technically he was not a don, but a university administrator - at a senior level, at St Andrews. An unlucky start, but the book deservedly found its way into print. What's more, Christie remained a fan, and when I visited her former home Greenway in May I remember seeing at least one book by Devine on the shelves there.

The story is set around a solicitors' office. Two brothers are partners. Simon Barnett narrates the story, and on one foggy night he responds to an urgent call from his brother Oliver only to find that Oliver has been murdered in his office. Oliver was a rascally character, and there are plentiful suspects, including a third partner called Fergusson.

Simon, a solid and decent sort of chap, is shocked to learn that Olive appears to have been a blackmailer. In addition, he betrayed his disfigured wife with a series of women in a squalid house that he rented under a pseudonym. A woman whom Simon once loved is arrested, but Simon is convinced of her innocence, and turns amateur detective, assisted by two colleagues.

The plot is elaborate and very carefully worked out. It depends in part on an alibi, and also on the extreme ingenuity and callousness of the culprit. Bearing in mind this was a first novel, I thought it was very well done, and I could see why Christie admired it. Devine went on to write a dozen more books, and although he never touched the heights, he was one of the mainstays of the Collins Crime Club for almost two decades. This is an extremely worthwhile reprint.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

A Lonely Place to Die - movie review

In the past few weeks, Hunted has introduced me to the charismatic Melissa George, whose all-action style is reminiscent of the hey-day of Mrs Emma Peel in The Avengers. Her name on the credit list tempted me to watch a movie from 2011, A Lonely Place to Die,even though the film starts off focusing on a group of mountaineers, and I find it hard to exaggerate how unappealing I find the idea of risking one's life climbing mountains (walking up a lot of steps in Kotor was different!). But it's all a matter of personal taste, and I'm glad that my prejudice in favour of Melissa just about outweighed my prejudice against rock-climbing, because this is a truly gripping film, one of the most terrifying I've seen in a long time - and not just because of what happens on those mountains.

The film is shot in the breathtakingly beautiful Scottish Highlands, and we are introduced to five youngish people, including a married couple, who have hired a house in a remote location not too far from Inverness, with a view for indulging their passion for scaling sheer cliff faces. The mood of adventure darkens when one member of the group hears a strange crying when they are in the middle of nowhere. They decide to investigate, and discover a breathing tube set in the earth. They uncover a sealed hole in the ground - inside is a young girl in school uniform. She doesn't speak a word of English, and appears to come from Eastern Europe.

The gang of five then make a terrible decision, deciding to split up as they try to get back to civilisation. Needless to say, this goes badly for them. and before long we encounter a couple of seriously unpleasant guys with guns. But this pair are then accosted by two  more chaps, who turn out to be even less likeable. What on earth is going on?

The pace thereafter is pretty relentless, and I thought the script, by Julian Gilbey and Will Gilbey, was consistently effective in delivering action and excitement. There are several vivid and memorable scenes. It's genuinely scary stuff, and yet somehow the narrative -just about - maintains credibility. One piece of advice for anyone who watches it - don't get too attached to many of the characters.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Editing a Novel - and The Frozen Shroud

The Frozen Shroud, the sixth Lake District Mystery, concerns three murders, each committed on Hallowe'en, over the space of one hundred years. It therefore appealed to me to submit the final typescript to my American publishers and agent at around midnight on...yes, Hallowe'en. What I hadn't bargained for was the speed and efficiency with which my editor, Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen Press, would edit the manuscript. It was back with me inside 48 hours, which was quite remarkable. So I spent the past week-end going through the edits as I seek to finalise the manuscript for publication next year.

This prompts me to make a few observations about the editing process, and the relationship between author and editor. It's a hugely important relationship, I think. I've been lucky, over the years, to have had some very good editors (they include David Shelley, whose idea it was that I write a new series with a rural setting, and is now editing J.K. Rowling, no less). Barbara is outstanding, not least because she combines experience, insight and love of the genre with a sympathy for what one is trying to do and also with a willingness to tackle aspects of a manuscript that don't seem, to her, to work. It's this robustness of approach, coupled with empathy for the writer's work, that separates the best editors from the rest.

One reason why the final editing process was so quick and painless was that I'd submitted a segment of the first draft to Barbara some months ago. She liked it (in fact, at the time, she and my agent liked the book more than I did - I was going through the sort of crisis of confidence that afflicts many authors mid-way through a first draft) but she did raise a few issues. All but one of these was easy to deal with. The remaining issue was also fairly easy to deal with, but more significant, because in changing what I had written, I came up with a brand new idea which helped me to reconfigure the sub-plot of the book in a way which, I felt, worked much better than the original. This really gave me a big morale boost, as a part of the story that had proved worrisome suddenly became satisfying to me and, I hope, to future readers.

This is what the editorial process can do for a writer, and a book. It's for the writer, not the editor, to write the book, but an editor's wisdom can be invaluable. Because I never feel confident about my first drafts, especially when they are incomplete, I'm always a bit reluctant to share them, but Barbara's input had consequences for the reconstruction of the story that she possibly didn't anticipate. Her comment on one relatively minor issue sparked my imagination, and gave me, and the narrative, fresh impetus. There are some aspects of this particular novel that are quite ambitious, and for a long time I wasn't sure they were going to work. Thanks in no small measure to a terrific editorial relationship, I'm now looking forward to the publication of the book with an eagerness that, back in summer, I wouldn't have thought possible..

Friday, 2 November 2012

Forgotten Book - Dead Men's Morris

Gladys Mitchell is a Golden Age writer who definitely falls into the category of "an acquired taste".I'm not sure I've wholly acquired that taste, and yet there are aspects of those of her books that I've read that I find admirable. Yet these invariably need to be balanced against various shortcomings. This is true of Dead Men's Morris,my Forgotten Book for today, which first appeared in 1936 and which is rated highly by a number of Mitchell devotees.

Mrs Bradley, Mitchell's detective, is in fine form here, cackling manically on her way to solving a rather elaborate mystery.The first victim dies (apparently from natural causes) early on Christmas Day in rural Oxfordshire, and the cast of characters includes not only a couple of Mrs Bradley's relatives but also assorted rustics, who speak in a dialect that becomes wearisome after a while (even the local police inspector speaks in dialect - over-egging the pudding, I felt).

Disparate ingredients are hurled into the mix - pig farming (the second victim is savaged by a boar), Morris dancing, a secret passage, a legend about a ghost, a couple of cryptic clues and a brief visit to the then premises of the Detection Club, of which Mrs Bradley was an honorary member, and to which Mitchell herself had recently been elected. There are even a couple of lawyers,one a victim, one a suspect, though neither bears the faintest resemblance to a real life solicitor. The most credible person in the entire story is a likeable young boy, and one can tell that Mitchell was fond of children..

What I like about Mitchell's writing is its sheer exuberance. The gusto with which she describes her detective's gleeful investigation is matched by the wackiness of the plot. Some people assume that Golden Age writers were prudish about sex, but here the sexual adventures of two young women play a part in the story; there are no graphic details of what they get up to, but even so...

If you haven't read Mitchell, she is definitely worth a look. Whether she is worth more than one look is a matter of personal taste. Some fans love her, Julian Symons (arguably the best crime critic of all, but someone who could be a severe judge) was utterly unimpressed. My own feeling is that, taken in small doses, Mitchell at her best is fun. And, though this book is characteristically eccentric, it does boast a very neat last line.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Montenegro - and Nero Wolfe

Montenegro isn't a country I'd associate with classic detective fiction - at least so I thought, until I remembered belatedly that one of the great sleuths of American mystery fiction hailed from Montenegro. This was Nero Wolfe, who featured in many novels written by Rex Stout. I've only read one or two of them, though, and I can't remember Montenegro featuring. It's years since I tried Stout - I was a bit underwhelmed with the widely admired Some Buried Caesar - and perhaps it's time to give him another go.

All this is by way of preamble to my last bit of reminiscence about last week's Adriatic cruise. The final port of call was a place called Kotor, which I must admit I'd never heard of. It is situated, rather idyllically, at the end of what is sometimes called Europe's southernmost fjord. In fact, it's a river canyon, but however you describe it, there's no denying that it's breathtakingly lovely.

Kotor is a small walled town with a long and notable history. Monttenegro only declared independence about six years ago, but in one guise or another, this little bit of Europe has played a part in much of the continent's history. Today, it's a place where tourism offers the potential for a brighter, and more peaceful future. The idea of a "wine and book shop" certainly deserves to catch on in my opinion, though sadly they didn't stock any Nero Wolfes.

Testament to Kotor's history of getting embroiled in warfare is the walled fortress at the top of the cliff that looms above the town. I started walking up to the fortress without having any real idea of how far away it was. By the time I'd begun to realise, it felt as though it would be wrong to turn back, so I carried on to the top. Apparently there are roughly 1350 steps from the town to the top, a climb that took about an hour, but believe me, I was too busy trying to get my breath back to count. At least the stunning views made it absolutely worthwhile.

I didn't see any reference to Nero Wolfe in Kotor. Maybe he didn't come from that part of the country. But who knows? One of these days Montenegro may have its own Wolfe trail. Nero might even do for the place what Morse did for Oxford. In the meantime, the beauty of the place is a more than good enough reason to visit it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

History and Dubrovnik

In an excellent article for The Guardian a couple of days ago, Mark Lawson wrote that; "One of the functions of fiction is to serve as a kind of tourism, either showing us places, situations and people that we might not otherwise reach or scrolling through snapshots of events or sensations that we remember." This is a very well made point, and it struck a real chord with me after my return from the Adriatic, and especially in relation to my visit to Dubrovnik.

I first went to Dubrovnik almost a quarter of a century ago. It was an impressive place, but my main, if rather hazy, recollection, is of a sense of regulation and limitation, imposed by the state machine of the time - in those days, Dubrovnik was part of Communist Yugoslavia. Since then, it was besieged during the terrible war with Serbia, and the marks of that war can still be seen if you look around. But the over-riding impression I had, not least from talking to a young taxi driver, was of a place which has been liberated from tyranny and which is loving that liberation.

If Venice is my favourite foreign city, Dubrovnik is now probably not far behind. It really looked fantastic in the sun, and we tried to cram as much as possible into a day's visit This meant an hour's trip in a glass-bottomed boat, a walk around the full length of the incredible city walls, and a cable car ride - three different perspectives on one of the most photogenic places I've visited.

I think if you know a little about the history of a place, it enhances the experience, and that's true even of somewhere as intrinsically and obviously attractive as Dubrovnik. I read a deeply felt message written by one of the residents whose home had been devastated during the war, and it was impossible not to feel a real sense of horror about what was done to innocent people within our lifetime. Our visit coincided with various Independence celebrations,and it was easy to understand why, given what they have endured, the people of the city have embraced capitalism (with all its faults) and are even looking forward to being part of the Eurozone (which I suppose could prove even more of a mixed blessing.).

It's because I believe that history matters, and that it is good to try to learn from history and experience, so as to try not to repeat the mistakes of the past, that I chose a historian as the male protagonist of the Lake District Mysteries. The series is intended to be very much about the Lakes in the21st century - but every book, and every story-line is informed by the past. And it's because of this interest in history that, as I walked the walls of Dubrovnik, I tried to imagine what Daniel Kind would make of the city. I reckon he'd like it as much as I do.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Exploring the Adriatic

I've been away for a week on a cruise of the Adriatic, a chance to unwind in some truly marvellous places, and also to catch up on some reading. The day before my departure I was sent three of the latest titles in the Arcturus Crime Classics series, and I enjoyed reading these as well as a brand new best-seller and an excellent psychological suspense novel from the 70s, written by someone who achieved fame in another genre. Reviews of each of these enjoyable books will appear on this blog in due course.

The cruise set off from Corfu, a delightful island. I haven't read any crime novels set there (though I'm sure there must be some.) The next stop was Koper, in Slovenia, a country I'd never visited before. Are there any Slovenian crime novels, I wonder? I was greatly impressed by this small yet entrancing old town, but above all by a tour which took us to a resort not far away, Piran - a very beautiful place indeed. To my shame, perhaps, I'd never heard of either Piran or Koper,and this stop was a reminder of how many wonderful parts of the world there are that I'm simply not aware of. The snag of course is that life is too short to get to know more than a selection of them.

Venice, the next destination, is a city everyone has heard of. This was my fourth visit, and I love the city more than anywhere else overseas. I enjoyed having another look in the window of the bookbinder's shop that gave me the inspiration for "The Bookbinder's Apprentice", the short story which won a Dagger four years ago. And the sheer mysteriousness of Venice remains, for me, part of its appeal. One of my favourite films, the uniquely sinister Don't Look Now, was set there.

After that came Split, in Croatia. This is another increasingly popular destination, and again I found it fascinating. It's remarkable to think that, just 20 years or so ago, this was an area riven by war. Thankfully, the disputes that fuelled all the bloodshed seem - to a casual outsider, certainly - to have been resolved. Tourism is one of the means by which the area has got back on its feet. I'll post tomorrow about a visit to another Croatian city that I found truly memorable, and which made me think more about history and historians (and so, inevitably, about Daniel Kind's take on life, and the idea of historians as detectives that lurks in the background of the Lake District Mysteries.).