Thursday, 27 November 2014

P.D. James - a few thoughts

The sad news of P.D. James' death at the age of 94 has prompted heartfelt tributes from her many friends and admirers, including fellow practitioners such as her great friend Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. We have lost one of the great detective novelists; there's no doubt that when future historians of the genre look back on twentieth century crime fiction, they will rank P.D. James highly. I'll say something more about her detective fiction soon, but for now I will just share a few personal thoughts about her.

I began reading her work in my teens, and soon became hooked. My first encounter with her in person came in the mid-80s, when she was on a publicity tour at the time of publication of the excellent A Taste for Death. I may be a writer now, but I've always been (and always will be) a fan, and when she came to my home town in Cheshire I was delighted to acquire a signed copy of the book. A few years later, when I'd achieved publication, I was asked to co-edit an anthology produced by the East Anglian chapter of the Crime Writers' Association, as I'd previously put together an anthology for the Northern chapter. The result was a book called Anglian Blood, and it contained a mix of fact and fiction. Phyllis was then a member of the CWA (this was before the controversy that sadly led to her resignation) and she was good enough to contribute a short piece called "Is There Arsenic Still for Tea?" A great thrill - my only regret was the book finished up with perhaps the most horrific cover artwork I've ever seen. I dread to think what she thought of it, and took care not to ask!

On the memorable night that I became a member of the Detection Club, I had the joyful experience of sitting with Phyllis, as well as two other writers I'd long admired, Jessica Mann and Simon Brett. More daunting, but also pleasurable in a different way, was the experience of delivering a talk about Golden Age fiction at St Hilda's College, with Phyllis sitting in the front row.

When Simon asked me to become the Detection Club's first archivist, Phyllis proved to be very supportive. She had long taken an interest in the genre's history - she was a passionate admirer of Dorothy L. Sayers, and author of Talking about Detective Fiction - and one day she rang me up out of the blue to tell me about something she'd discovered about the Club's early days. What's more, she promptly sent the material to me. A small thing, perhaps, but indicative of the kindness of which many who knew her better than I did have spoken. Last year, I had the great pleasure of sitting next to her at a dinner, when we discussed The Golden Age of Murder, her researches into the Wallace case (subsequently published in the Sunday Times) and her true crime book, The Maul and the Pear-Tree, co-written with a former colleague, T.A. Critchley.

That night, she and I and Sheila Keating journeyed home from the dinner in a taxi together, and Phyllis regaled us with an account of being awarded the freedom of Lyons. She was witty and convivial, interesting and interested. You'd never have guessed she was 93. A few days ago, Sheila very kindly sent her the manuscript of The Golden Age of Murder, which has just gone through a final copy edit, but the news came back that Phyllis was too frail to read a full-length book. Of course, I like to think that she would have enjoyed it, but I'll never know. What I do know is that she was not only a fine writer, but more importantly a warm and wise woman who showed a great deal of generosity to younger writers, of whom I am just one. Hers, truly, was a life well lived.      

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Fight Club - movie review

Fight Club is one of those films that didn't do well at the box office when it was first released fifteen years ago, but it later gained an extensive following as its qualities came to be appreciated. Now, it's well established as a cult movie that is regarded in some quarters as a masterpiece. I'd never got round to watching it until recently, but the director, David Fincher, is someone whose work I've found myself admiring more than once - and I haven't even seen Gone Girl yet.

Edward Norton plays an unnamed young man who suffers from insomnia and works in a stultifying office environment. Failing to get medical help, he attaches himself to various support groups, pretending, amongst other things, to be a cancer sufferer. He encounters the weird but attractive Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) who is another impostor. He tries to shake her off, but she keeps coming back into his life. Another encounter, with the dashing Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) results in the formation of a "fight club". Men fight each other in secret in order (amongst others to channel their despair about their lives). Soon "fight clubs" are springing up all over the US, and a pattern of destructivenss starts to take shape.

There is a memorable plot twist in this film, and although there are spoilers all over the internet, I don't intend to add to them, so my comments about the film have to be guarded. As with Fincher's other movies, I thought there was much to admire here, especially in the acting, the dazzling photography, and a number of witty lines of dialogue. But I did think that the film went on too long, and for me, that slightly reduced its impact. The fight scenes also left me cold, simply because I've always detested the idea of people fighting. Possibly the length of the film was why it was not an instant hit. I am sure, however, that it is one of those films that will repay a second viewing.

The plot twist in Fight Club is one of the best I can remember in a movie, even though I like some of Fincher's other films better. Perhaps my all-time favourite twist is that in The Usual Suspects, and Body Heat is another candidate. Here, Fincher cleverly integrates the twist into the theme of the film. The art of the plot twist fascinates me, but again, it's a subject that is hard to discuss without spoilers. All I can say is that, although it took me far too long to get round to watching Fight Club, I'm glad I did.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Patrick Quentin and The Follower - guest blog by Christopher Greaves

One of the joys of blogging is that it brings you into contact with many people you wouldn't otherwise get to know. I was contacted a while ago by Christopher Greaves, who shares my enthusiasm for Patrick Quentin, and the outcome of our email correspondence is that he's written a guest blog post which I'm happy to include today. Christopher is also the author of The Past is Never Closed

"It’s good to see the Patrick Quentin/Q. Patrick/Jonathan Stagge team receiving more attention.  On the whole, it seems to be the earlier, more Golden Age books that are being read and reviewed, but for my money it’s the later Patrick Quentins - the ones written solely by Hugh Wheeler - that are really something special.  The earlier books tend to be more fanciful, less plausible; the later ones marry the most wonderfully skilful plotting with a greater realism. 
The shift from the earlier to the later style is clearly shown in one of the last of the Hugh Wheeler - Richard Webb collaborations, Jonathan Stagge’s The Three Fears (1949).  The feud which runs throughout the book between the two leading actresses, Daphne Winters and Lucy Milliken, is described with a good deal of sophisticated wit and almost amounts to a comedy of manners (the theme of the diva would be taken up again in Wheeler’s Suspicious Circumstances), but the idea that someone as tough as the ‘Divine Daphne’ would be haunted by ‘three fears’ - of death by poison, claustrophobia and fire - just doesn’t make sense, it belongs to an altogether more quirky, melodramatic way of writing, as does the casual, rather cynical handling of the murder of one of Daphne’s acolytes.  In other words, the book suffers by falling between two stools.
Patrick Quentin’s The Follower from the following year (1950) is a much better book and paves the way for Hugh Wheeler’s solo efforts, written after Richard Webb had dropped out of the partnership.  Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if The Follower wasn’t a Wheeler-only book: we see here the same ability to reveal character through dialogue and the same interest in the protagonist’s emotional life that we find in the later volumes, almost all of which have in common the fact that there is an emotional problem as well as a murder mystery to be solved.  Where it differs from Fatal Woman, The Man with Two Wives, and the rest of them, is that it is a thriller rather than a whodunit.
The set-up is especially good.  Mark Liddon, a young, just-married engineer, returns to New York from a spell of work in Venezuela in order to be back with his wife Ellie in time for Christmas.  But ditzy, poor-little-rich-girl Ellie isn’t there.  Instead, Mark finds the dead body of one of her former admirers, shot through the heart.  He doesn’t know how it happened but his one inclination is to find and protect his wife, so he hides the body and manages, by a clever piece of detective work, to get a lead as to where she might have gone.  The action now shifts to Mexico - as with two slightly earlier Quentins, Puzzle for Pilgrims and Run to Death.  Mark learns that his wife has bought a ticket for a bullfight - yet when he gets to the stadium, the woman who shows up using his wife’s name isn’t Ellie at all but a complete stranger.  Having just read Helen McCloy’s The Impostor, I can report that the imposture theme is handled in a much more interesting, suspenseful way by Quentin here.  Mark does find Ellie, only to lose her again…until the denouement, when everything is finally explained.  It’s quite a long explanation, but Quentin sustains our interest by leaving a key element of the emotional part of the problem unresolved until the penultimate page.  Perhaps the showdown scene lacks real menace and it’s arguable that too much information is held back until the end, but the gripping narrative, touches of humour, occasional splashes of local colour, and elements of romance and mystery combine to make The Follower a fine thriller with a satisfying conclusion."

Thanks. Christopher!
 

Locked Room Mysteries

Detective fiction began with a "locked room" murder mystery. Most people agree, I think, that Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" marked the start of the genre as we know it, though some make claims for earlier stories - and even these include a story by the estimable Sheridan Le Fanu that has a "locked room" element. Ever since, detective fans have enjoyed locked room and impossible crime mysteries. Yes, they are often outlandish and sometimes highly artificial, but when done well, they supply very good entertainment. Look at the success on recent years of TV series like Jonathan Creek which often play games that the likes of John Dickson Carr, supreme master of the locked room mystery, would have relished.

All this is by way of preamble to news that I've just received my contributor copy of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, edited by the legendary Otto Penzler, and sub-titled "The most complete collection of impossible-crime stories ever assembled." There are no fewer than 68 stories here, starting with Poe's story, and suffice to say that I find myself in very illustrious company - fellow contributors incldue Chesterton, Carr, Lord Dunsany, Conan Doye, Wilkie Collins, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Margery Allingham, Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish), Dorothy L. Sayers and even P.G. Wodehouse.

Otto Penzler contributes a snappy intro and biographical notes about all the contributors, and divides the book into nine sections. The final section has just one story in it - "Some stories simply can't be categorised", he says - and this is my "Waiting for Godstow". Otto has been quoted recently saying nice things about it; very gratifying. I wrote the story originally for another impossible crime anthology, edited by Mike Ashley, more than a decade ago, and reader reaction to it has delighted me over the years. It's a tricky story, an example of the game-playing that, for me, works more effectively in the short form than in a novel. Another example is "Acknowledgments", which I mentioned the other day; the new ebook also includes my very first published short story, another game-playing piece called "Are You Sitting Comfortably?"

I've written three short stories in all that fall into the "impossible crime" sub-genre, and although I've no plans to write a locked room novel, it's likely that I'll write another short story of this type before long. Meanwhile, if you're a locked room fan, I can strongly recommend a wonderful and definitive book on the topic, Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey. Bob is a great expert, and when I had the pleasure of visiting his home the summer before last, I found his massive collection of rare books absolutely stunning. His magnum opus is hard to find either the first or second edition, but if you manage to track down a copy, I'm sure you'll love it as much as I do. Great fun, just like locked room stories themselves.





Sunday, 23 November 2014

Remember Me - BBC 1 - TV review

Remember Me, which began on BBC 1 this evening, is a three part story of the supernatural written by Gwyneth Hughes and starring Michael Palin as Tom Parfitt and Jodie Comer as a young care worker called Hannah. The first episode seemed to me to strike a successful balance, introducing a number of mostly engaging characters and an intriguing set-up, without making it too clear what was actually going on.

Getting that balance right in a supernatural story that takes the form of a serial is easier said than done. The Intruders overdid the complications in episode one to such an extent that I haven't summoned up the enthusiasm to watch any more of it. The Secret of Crickley Hall was better, but not unduly subtle. Part of the interest here lay in the casting of Palin, an agreeable chap playing an equivocal and rather sinister old man who fakes a fall at home in order to move into a care home. Jodie Comer was also very good as the young carer who took a shine to him - even after a woman falls to her death after entering Tom's room in the care home.

A firmly realised setting is, I think, a big asset in a ghost story, and Hughes did very well to ground the action in a gritty Yorkshire setting. The contrast with the surreal goings-on in the storyline was thus made all the more effective. The care home is a converted mill - of the kind in which my grandmother, a Yorkshirewoman herself, worked many, many years ago - and there are numerous references to Scarborough, one of my favourite resorts. And the folk tune "Scarborough Fair" plays a spooky part in the mystery, as does a mysterious photograph of a young boy..

A credible background, and characters we can identify with, help viewers (or readers) to overcome their reservations about any potential silliness in a ghost story. Hughes managed to keep me interested from start to finish, and even to distract me from revising my draft novel. Well, any excuse will do, I suppose, but I don't mean to damn Remember Me with faint praise. It was very watchable, and I plan to watch next week as well.





Friday, 21 November 2014

Forgotten Book - Death of a Millionaire

Death of a Millionaire, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, was published almost ninety years ago, and is my Forgotten Book for today. Its appearance followed Douglas Cole's solo detective novel, which introduced Superintendent Henry Wilson, and it marked the beginning of a literary partnership that lasted for more than fifteen years between Douglas and his wife Margaret. They carved a niche for themselves in crime fiction history, and although their work has often been condemned for dullness, it is noteworthy that this particular book became a green Penguin paperback a quarter of a century after its first appearance, no mean feat. This may, in part, have been due to the authors' fame as socialist thinkers, but the book also received some laudatory reviews.

It begins promisingly, with satiric description of posh Sugden's Hotel and high ranking politician Lord Ealing. He has some form of business connection with a mysterious millionaire called Hugh Radlett, who has checked into the hotel, but Radlett, and his equally mysterious secretary go missing, and all the evidence suggests that the secretary has killed his employer, and taken the body away in a trunk. But why?

The book also ends rather well, with a neat plot twist, and further helpings of anti-establishment satire. On the final page, one character says, "Law and order and rights of property...are all bunkum", and Wilson is so disgusted by what happens after he solves the puzzle that he leaves Scotland Yard and sets up as a private detective. (This didn't last long; he soon returned to the fold.) Judged by the standards of the mid-1920s, all this was rather daring and unusual, and it's best to judge books by reference to the time when they were written, and what the author(s) was trying to do..

It's significant that this book was written a year before the General Strike. The Coles describe a dysfunctional society seemingly beyond repair. During the novel, a manuscript written by Radlett tells the story of how his father was a trade union activist who suffered through his beliefs, and post-Revolution Russia is presented with more sympathy than you might expect in a detective novel of this period.

So there are pleasing elements to be found in this novel, especially for those interested in social history. Unfortunately, I found I had to struggle through some very tedious story-telling in order to unearth the good bits. I'm afraid that I was bored for some of the time, because to achieve that cunning plot twist, the Coles needed to construct a very elaborate sequence of events, which they proceeded to recount in a very long-winded fashion  The style is sometimes arch, sometimes clumsy. As so often in their books, the cleverness of the basic idea simply was not matched by the way it was put to work. But one has to remember that neither of the authors was an experienced detective novelist when they wrote this  They later proved they were capable of doing better, although like many of their contemporaries, if they had written half as many books, and lavished twice as much care over them, the results would have been more artistically satisfying..

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Publication Day - Acknowledgments

A major highlight of my year came at Crimefest in May when I won the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham Prize for my short story "Acknowledgments". Among other lovely things, part of the prize was the commitment of Bloomsbury to publish the winning entry in ebook form, via their successful Bloomsbury Reader platform. Bloomsbury has - in less than thirty years- established a very impressive reputation, not least thanks to the Harry Potter series and a Man Booker Prize winner. So I'm honoured to announce that today is publication day of Acknowledgments, an ebook that includes not just the story, but rather more.

It seemed to me that it would be desirable to offer readers some "added value", given that the story itself is short of necessity, because of the word limit in the competition rules. Luckily, Bloomsbury agreed. So the ebook includes two other stories of mine of which I'm fond, and which I felt would benefit from a fresh life. There is also an essay by me about Margery Allingham and her short stories, and a generous intro from Julia Jones, biographer of Allingham and closely involved with the Margery Allingham Society I had a lot of fun writing "Acknowledgments", and I hope it will entertain and amuse you if you read it..

Allingham was a very interesting woman and an accomplished writer. I've wavered, if I am honest, in my views about her books over the years, and to this day I haven't read them all. But I rediscovered her, in a sense, while researching her for The Golden Age of Murder, and I'm becoming ever more enthusiastic about her writing. I'm hoping, with Julia's encouragement, to go on an Allingham tour next year and explore some of the locations of the books. And I devoted the prize money to acquiring some delightful first editions inscribed by Allingham herself - it seemed fitting, and much better for me and my family than lots of chocolate...

I've quite often been shortlisted for prizes that were won by someone else, and my sympathies are at least as often with those on the shortlist as with the winners. All the more so this year, because my wife Helena was one of the runners-up. However, we still speak occasionally...and I'm thrilled to say that her story will be published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine before long. This will be her first taste of publication as a fiction writer, but another one (a contribution to an anthology of stories edited by Ann Cleeves) is already looming. This leads me to my final point - competitions can be Very Good Things for writers, whether experienced or inexperienced. The CWA Margery Allngham prize will be awarded again next year, and more details for prospective entrants can be found here.  



Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Three Cases of Murder - film/DVD review

Three Cases of Murder, a film dating from 1955, was released a while back on DVD. It isn't an especially renowned film, even though Orson Welles appears in it, but it really ought to be. I think it bears comparison with Dead of Night, that classic chiller, which scared me when I was eleven years old, and watched it for the first time. Like Dead of Night, this one is a portmanteau film, comprising three distinct stories (apparently, the origiinal plan was for there to be five stories, but budget pressures forced a cut-back; even so, it's a very watchable film.)

The linking device between the stories is different from that in Dead of Night, and less powerful. In fact, it now seems rather odd. Each story is introduced by, of all people, Eamonn Andrews. Perhaps the film shoudl have been called This is Your Death. I'm afraid Eamoon doesn't add a lot of value; the film succeeds in spite of his presence, rather than thanks to it.

The first of the three stories, "In the Picture", is the most memorable. It's a very macabre story written by Roderick Wilson, yet I've been unable to find out anything about Wilson; does anyone reading this blog know anything about him? The tale begins quite jauntily, with some rather intrusive background music, but soon settles into something different, and disturbing. It's worth watching the movie for this segment alone.

"You Killed Elizabeth" is based on a story by Brett Halliday (real name David Dresser), who was at one time married to the admirable Helen McCloy. It's a short, competent whodunit, featuring John Gregson in his pre-George Gideon days. "Lord Mountdrago", based on a story by Somerset Maugham, stars Welles as a nasty Foreign Secretary who is haunted by his enemy, a Kinnock-esque politician played by the excellent Alan Badel, who also has key roles in the other two segments. The DVD also contains as a bonus an Irish ghost story which again features Welles. I was expecting something okay from this film, but found I was watching something truly enjoyable. Strongly recommended.

The British LIbrary, Crime Classics, and the Series Consultant...


The British Library's Crime Classics series is going from strength to strength, and I'm delighted to make one or two personal announcements about it today. First let me mention that the first half of next year will see the appearance of two anthologies of Golden Age fiction edited and introduced by me and forming part of the series. Resorting to Murder focuses on holiday mysteries, while Capital Crimes is a collection of stories set in and around London. I'm hoping these books will introduce a new generation of readers to some of the marvellous short stories published between the wars. Each anthology will include one or two rare stories that I suspect will be unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated specialists.

The Crime Classics series are beautifully produced; even so, I must admit their success has taken my breath away. I've been writing intros for republished crime novels of the past for about twenty years - starting with the late lamented Black Dagger crime series - but there's never been anything remotely this popular until recently (and the success of the Detection Club reprints by Harper Collins, a couple of which feature intros of mine is another welcome sign of the times.)

Who would have thought that novels written by John Bude and J. Jefferson Farjeon would become bestsellers in the twenty-first century? Not me, to be honest. And yet this is the British Library's achievement. A few days ago, Farjeon's Mystery in White reached number 4 in the Waterstones fiction bestseller chart, having risen from number 6 the previous week (Donna Tartt's latest being one place higher) . In the space of two months, 20,000 plus copies have been sold, and I gather that about 95% of this figure is represented by the print edition, rather than ebooks, which in  this day and age is very, very striking. Bear in mind that there is no living author around to promote their work on tours and so on. As for Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder has become the British Library's all-time bestselling book published under its own imprint - remarkable, if one thinks about that.. As of today, I gather it's sold upwards of 40,000 copies in all in about eight months.

The British Library is now looking ahead, and giving careful thought as to how to sustain the remarkable popularity of the Crime Classics. For some time, I've been in discussion with them about possible future titles, and I've been commissioned to write introductions to recently published titles such as Charles Kingston's Murder in Piccadilly and John G. Brandon's A Scream in Soho. The aim of the intros is to offer readers some "added value", and the Library's view is that it's desirable to avoid duplication, so I write different intros for each book, even if the author has appeared in the series before, concentrating on fresh aspects of the author's work.

Other titles in the works include an excellent Bude book, The Sussex Downs Murder, and two particularly interesting novels The Hog's Back Mystery and Antidote to Venom, both by Freeman Wills Crofts. Five further  books are expected to appear in 2015, including a third anthology which I'm working on at present. Various factors (including availability of the rights) govern the actual choices made, but having suggested those two Crofts books, I'm delighted that they are to be republished.

I'm also thrilled to announce that the British Library has appointed me as Series Consultant to the Crime Classics series. It's a relationship which I'm really enjoying, and at long last, I no longer feel like a member of an endangered minority in my enthusiasm for these long-forgotten stories. Whilst I remain absolutely committed to my career as a contemporary novelist, I've been writing about Golden Age fiction for more than a quarter of a century (and reading it for much longer than that). I have never known a time when there was so much interest in the subject, not only in the UK, but much further afield, and this is also reflected in reaction to news of the forthcoming publication of The Golden Age of Murder (now available for pre-order on Amazon, by the way!) Long may it continue..


Monday, 17 November 2014

All the Fun of the Book Fair

At present, I'm hard at work on the final stages of my latest Lake District Mystery, but a welcome digression on Saturday involved my annual pilgrimage to the national crime and detection book fair in Harrogate. Fog across the Pennines delayed my journey, but I thought two hours at the fair would still be plenty. It proved to be far from long enough. This may, however, have been a good thing in one sense. Book fairs as impressive as this one can seriously damage your financial health.

As well as specialist crime fiction dealers (plus several who were selling children's books), I was delighted to bump into David Stuart Davies, the Sherlock Holmes expert, who was marketing a selection of his own books. David kindly wrote an introduction to The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and is a good friend of Leslie Klinger, whose work on the Free Sherlock project we both agreed was truly admirable.

One totally unexpected, and quite heartwarming, encounter was with a very pleasant teacher who had brought a group of Year 8 schoolgirls along. She told me that the class has been studying detective fiction - lucky things. That's educational progress for you! She'd had the very good idea of bringing the girls along to the fair, and they seemed to be having a fun time. In fact one had bought a copy of John Bude's The Lake District Murder, and one of the dealers had suggested she asked me to sign it. It would be nice to think that some of those girls will retain a fondness for detective fiction throughout their lives. The teacher was doing a really great job. Very enlightened.

I enjoyed chatting to the specialist crime dealers, and admiring their stock (including a signed book in pristine dust jacket by Patricia Wentworth, for instance, and hard-to-find copies of classics by Henry Wade, John Rhode, and the Coles), as well as soliciting feedback on the proposed cover artwork for The Golden Age of Murder. One dealer told me that he'd brought along a large quantity of titles by E.C.R. Lorac, and nearly all of them had been snapped up by the end of the afternoon. Lorac's work is a good example of what one might call "late Golden Age" writing, and I have quite a few of her books, which originally I bought for my parents, both of whom were Lorac fans. Some other titles, though, are very hard to find; hence the demand for them on Saturday.

Another dealer told me that the British Library Crime Classics series is fuelling interest in the first editions of the writers chosen. Price inflation is occurring as a result, it seems, because the originals are so rare. I was also invited to consider a possible new writing project with Golden Age connections, which will be unique and fascinating to undertake if we can get it off the ground. I saw a number of wonderful first editions in dust jackets that I'll probably never see again, such is their scarcity. Did I make any purchases? Only seven, which I regard as very restrained when surrounded by so many temptations. I'll say more about them in the future, but in the meantime, I'll just mention that one of them was a cheap paperback in the Collins White Circle series with the splendid title Detectives in Gum Boots. The author was Roger East, some of whose other novels I've enjoyed. But I've never seen a copy of this one before, and I simply couldn't resist....