Friday, 30 January 2015

Forgotten Book - Criminal Sentences

Next week, I will revert to my usual Friday pattern of a Forgotten Book which is a crime novel (and the author I have in mind is a very good exponent of Golden Age fiction.) Today, though, as a further tribute to the late Bob Adey, whose funeral took place this week, I'd like to talk about another "book about the books". This time it's a title from 1997, Criminal Sentences, by Steve Haste.

I've mentioned this book once or twice before, but I've yet to find anyone else who has read it. Surely there must be someone out there who shares my enthusiasm for it? The sub-title is self-explanatory: "True crime in fiction in drama." This is a book about real life cases that inspired crime fiction, a subject which, I would argue, is of great importance to any understanding of the genre's history and development. Because, from Poe, Collins and Conan Doyle onwards, crime writers have made great use of "true crime" in their fiction.

I don't claim that Haste's book is totally comprehensive. There are some notable novels inspired by fiction which are not mentioned, along with a number of rather obscure titles that have been overlooked. And there are a number of significant murder cases that are not covered either. But that is inevitable in a pioneering work of this kind. It's not possible to cover everything, and it would be futile to pretend otherwise.

Haste does a great job of summarising the cases, and then listing works of fiction derived from them. Many are Golden Age titles, but there are many others. He writes in a concise style, and that's a strength in this sort of reference book. The particular joy that comes from reading this book is the chance to seek out books of which one was previously unaware, where they fictionalise interesting crimes. If I read a "book about books", I like to be pointed to unfamiliar titles that I might enjoy reading (this is part of the reason why I've always admired Julian Symons' Bloody Murder.) Steve Haste's book does this, in an unfussy and enjoyable way. Will there ever be a second, updated edition? I have never met or had any contact with Mr Haste, but I would love to think he is contemplating a new edition.



Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Truth about Emanuel - film review

The Truth about Emanuel is a 2013 which boasts a superb cast, and an unusual storyline  with a bizarre and intriguing plot twist. The cast first. There is Frances O'Connor, who was so wonderful in The Missing, here playing an American step-mother. There is Alfred Molina, always dependable, as her husband. There is Kaya Scodelario as the pretty teenage daughter of the family and Aneurin Barnard, excellent in Cilla as Bobby Willis, as her new boyfriend. Finally, there is Jessica Biel, who is always worth watching.


Now the set-up. Kaya Scodelario is the central character. She was born as her  mother died, a tragedy that has shaped her life and her outlook. Her dad remarried a year ago, and O'Connor's character makes valiant efforts to bond with the girl, but to no avail. When Biel's character becomes a neighbour, an apparently single woman with a young baby, there is an opportunity for the teenager to do some babysitting. But something very strange is going on - is the lovely woman next door all that she seems?

What could possibly go wrong? The script, is the answer. I am afraid that I felt that the writers of the story, Francesca Gregorini (who also directs) and  Sarah Maur Thorp, relied too heavily on a twist that occurs before the film is half way through. I don't want to say more about it because that would be a spoiler. After the plot twist, the film commences a slow descent to silliness, and the result is profoundly unsatisfying. A pity,because this could have been a really memorable movie.

To some extent, the failings of the screenplay are mitigated by the excellence of the acting. I though all five of the lead actors did a really good job with the material. But when I learned that the film was originally due to be called Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes, it tended to confirm my impression that Francesca Gregorini didn't have a clear idea of what to do with the resources available to her. A pity, for this film is really a missed opportunity.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Cape Fear (1962) - movie review

Cape Fear is a notable American thriller dating back just over half a century. It was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese, but until recently I hadn't seen either version. Nor had I read The Executioners by John D.MacDonald on which it is based. Now I've filled one of these lamentable gaps, by watching the original movie, and it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Those expectations were fuelled in part by the casting of two stars at the peak of their fame. Gregory Peck plays a decent lawyer (at last, a nice attorney!) while Robert Mitchum is the psychopathic ex-convict who bears him a grudge. The cast also includes Telly Savalas as a private eye, long before he too found fame, in Kojak. The film is well acted throughout, but really it's Mitchum who is the outstanding performer, making the most of his menacing role as the ruthless rapist Sam Cady.

Mitchum stalks Peck, but doesn't stop there. He poisons the family dog, and makes it clear to Peck that he is determined to rape his wife and daughter. Peck tries to buy him off, and then to have him beaten up - all to no avail. The tension builds as it becomes clear that only the most drastic measures will save Peck and the woman and child he loves.

Peck's wife is played by Polly Bergen, who died recently, and who was also a singer (her accompanist and boyfriend in the early Fifties later became a legendary composer...) Apparently she and Mitchum were both injured when they filmed a scene where they fight together, so intensely were they caught up in the story.. And the action is enhanced by a characteristically dramatic score written by another legendary composer, the great Bernard Hermann. it all adds up to a film that well deserves its high reputation.




Friday, 23 January 2015

Forgotten Book - The Heirs of Anthony Boucher

As I did last week, I've chosen as my Forgotten Book for today a book about the genre, rather than a novel, as a small tribute to the memory of the late Bob Adey. The Heirs of Anthony Boucher, by Marv Lachman,is, to be honest, really too recent to be called a "forgotten book" (it was published by Poisoned Pen Press ten years ago), but it is a unique book that is little known in the UK, and Bob is mentioned a number of times in the text, so I think it deserves to be highlighted.

The sub-text is "A History of Mystery Fandom", and that's exactly what the book is. There's an introduction by Edward D. Hoch, a wonderful and prolific short story writer, sadly no longer with us, who describes himself proudly as a mystery fan. As he says, Marv is ideally qualified to write such a book, given the breadth of his reading over many years. Ed also makes the point that many readers and writers are unaware of what has gone before in the genre, and that it's valuable to be reminded of, for instance, the history of that great convention Bouchercon.

The book gives a pithy account of the early days of fandom, including such little-known organisations as Patricia Wentworth Fan Club and the Praed Street Irregulars. There is a lot of information about Bouchercon, which began in 1970 and marked the beginning of a new era for mystery enthusiasts, as well as the formation of many long-lasting friendships, a happy tradition that continues to this day. A wide range of mytery magazines are discussed, including CADS and Mystery Scene, which are still flourishing.

I've met Marv a few times at conventions, and he's one of the most knowledgeable of all crime fiction enthusiasts. I've read segments of his latest book, about mystery plays, in Give Me That Old-Time Detection,and he also wrote an excellent book about regional American mysteries. But because of its quirky subject matter, this one is a special favourite of mine, and I commend it to anyone who is curious about the evolution of fan interest in the genre. Marv's love of the genre shines through.

Marv also makes special and gracious, mention of one of our encounters, at the 1995 Nottingham Bouchercon. On that occasion, he, Ed Hoch, Sarah J. Mason and I competed in "Mastermind", and had a great deal of fun in the process. There's even a photo of the occasion in the book. It's slightly surreal to see myself looking twenty years younger. Where did the time go? Well, some of it went in reading good books in and about the genre, and this one is definitely among my favourites.  .

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Disconnect - the movie - and connecting....

Disoonnect is a 2012 film that I found very watchable. More than that, it made me think. In keeping with its title, it's a rather fragmentary piece of work, putting together three stories about people who run into trouble of various kinds thanks to their absorption with the internet. There are links between the different stories, although they are rather loose, and the human dramas are well told, and well acted,

So we have a story about cyber-bullying, where two boys pretend to be a girl and induce another boy to send a revealing photo of himself, which they promptly circulate to their circle. The victim responds by hanging himself. This is a highly topical situation, with all the publicity recently surrounding celebrities whose private photos have been hacked and publicised. It's a scenario which tells us more about the worthlessness of the hackers than anyone else, and I found this story the most powerful in the film.

Another story concerns a journalist who befriends a teenager who is, in effect, a male prostitute, while the final story is about a couple whose bank accounts are broken into by a hacker. One of the themes common to the three stories is that of impersonation. The internet makes it easy for people to disguise their identities, and the ability to pretend to be someone else - a subject that's always fascinated me as a novelist, as anyone who has read The Arsenic Labyrinth will appreciate - can be corrupting in the extreme.

Disconnect is a film I can recommend, even though its "messages" are not necessarily straightforward (and that's not a criticism -some social issues are too complex to give rise to straightforward messages.)  One issue it doesn't really touch on is that of internet trolls, and I feel sure that trolls will soon feature in a number of novels and films, because their unpleasant behaviour is, let's face it, interesting.

My own view is that it is the anonymity of trolls that is the central problem, because it facilitates and encourages a malign blend of cowardice and cruelty. If people who behave unkindly could not hide their identity, surely many of them would behave differently. Most human beings are, I like to think, instinctively decent, but the phoney comfort blanket of anonymity tempts them to hurt others for no good reason. As always, I'd be interested in your views (as long as you put your name to them!) My final reflection prompted by this thought-provoking film is this. If ever there was a suitably topical subject for a novelist, it's the question of anonymous trolling on the internet.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Gideon's Day - film review

Gideon's Day, also known as Gideon of Scotland Yard, is a late Fifties film based on a novel by J.J.Marric, which was one of John Creasey's many pseudonyms. As a small boy, I watched episodes of the TV series based on the character, George Gideon, which starred John Gregson (Gideon's Way), and when the film popped up on the schedules, I thought it was high time I caught up with it..Creasey wrote hundreds of books, but some people think that the Gideon series included much of his best work.

The film has a lot going for it. Directed by the legendary John Ford, it has a screenplay by T.E.B. Clarke, who is perhaps most renowned for that Ealing classic The Lavender Hill Mob. Gideon is played by Jack Hawkins, one of the most striking British actors of the Fifties, and there is a very good supporting cast. John Le Mesurier and Miles Malleson, two old favourites of mine, both appear in a scene at the Old Bailey, while Anna Massey, whom I once saw give a splendid performance on the stage, made her debut as Gideon's daughter.

The essence of the story is about the packed and varied day experienced by Gideon, and his hapless attempts to juggle work with his home life. He suspends a crooked subordinate (who is murdered shortly afterwards), solves a series of pay snatches (risking his life in the process), is involved in the hunt for a deranged sex killer, gives evidence in a court case, helps to save an informant from a razor gang, and catches a robber who has already killed the guard at a security deposit, Blimey! He even finds time to pop home for lunch and drop into a pub for tea, although both times he is interrupted before he can eat anything.

It's a film that must have seemed very topical at the time of its release,and like most topical stories, it now has a very dated feel. Mrs Gideon, for instance, is very much a housewife of the Fifties, and the portrayal of the police is a world away from Broadchurch or Happy Valley. During the first few minutes, I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy the film, but I did warm to it. A period piece, yes, but decent light entertainment.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Forgotten No More? Deadlier than the Male

Something a little different today. Since the sad death of Bob Adey, author of the wonderful Locked Room Murders, I've been reflecting further on books about the genre, and those that I've enjoyed over the years, including some that are not often discussed nowadays. I'm tempted to write about several of them, and today I'm going to talk about one that has just been made available again to a new generation of readers

Deadlier than the Male was originally published in 1981. Its sub-title then was: "Why are respectable English women so good at murder?" which is a question that's been given various answers over the years, not least by P.D. James. The author was a friend of Phyllis James, and herself a crime novelist of distinction, Jessica Mann. Her books often have a feminist perspective, in a way that is persuasive and appealing, and this title is no exception.

Unfortunately, this particular book has been out of print for years, and it would, I think, be fair to describe it as a Forgotten Book. Happily, we live in an age when, with a bit of luck and enterprise, forgotten books need remain forgotten no longer. And Deadlier Than the Male is now available again, as an ebook, for the modest sum of £1.99. The sub-title now is "an investigation into feminine crime writing". As the blurb says, on its original appearance, the book was described by one critic as “obligatory reading for any reader of crime fiction”, while another wrote, "I cannot recall a better work of criticism devoted to the crime story."

I bought and devoured the book a good many years before I met Jessica, and I found the coverage of the "crime queens", especially those other than Agatha Christie (about whom I'd already read plenty) informative and enjoyable. It is fair to say that the range of books in this area has greatly improved over the past thirty years, and in some cases, more information has come to light about the lives of the authors. But that does not devalue the significance or merit of this consistently interesting book, and I'm delighted that it has returned to enjoy a new life and attract a new set of readers.


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Noose for a Lady - film/DVD review

Noose for a Lady is a 1953 whodunit film which seemed to have been well and truly forgotten until its recent release in DVD form. Having just watched it, I must say I'm glad it's been resurrected, because it presents a highly traditional whodunit in the space of just over 70 minutes and provides decent entertainment from start to finish. The director, Wolf Rilla, by the way, later became renowned for The Village of the Damned, based on John Wyndham's classic sci-fi novel The Midwich Cuckoos.

The set-up is very familiar. A woman has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to death. An appeal fails, and her fate seems to be sealed by the time a cousin (Dennis Price, that great post-war smoothie) returns from Uganda and decides she is innocent, and must be saved. So we have a clock-race element coupled with a hunt for a killer among the genteel family and social circle of the dead man.

Suspicion shifts pleasingly from one suspect to another. Is the killer the suave doctor (Ronald Howard) or the dodgy collector of knick-knacks (Charles Lloyd Pack, father of Roger Lloyd Pack, and grandfather of Emily Lloyd)? Or perhaps a retired soldier with a discreditable past, or the local busy-body, or the pretty girl Price's character fancies? Or...well, you get the picture.

The film is based on a novel by Gerald Verner, which in turn appears to have been based on a radio serial - this would explain why it is very dialogue-heavy. I've never read anything by Verner, but he was certainly prolific, with well over one hundred novels to his credit. He also adapted Agatha Christie's Towards Zero for the stage. It seems that Edgar Wallace was a major influence on him, but this story is more in the Christie vein. It's a competently made, unpretentious film, and like so many hitherto neglected books and films, it's now enjoying a new lease of life as it becomes, happily, cheaper and easier to make such work available to a new generation of fans at modest cost.


Monday, 12 January 2015

The York Book Fair



A major book fair is held at York Racecourse in early January each year. I don't travel there every year, since a trip on the M62 in wintry conditions is not the ideal way of passing the time, but a long week-end in York this year coincided happily with the fair, so I was able to make it. And it was, as ever, fun to look at books that I'll never be able to own but which are nevertheless full of interest.

An example was a thriller called Wheels of Anarchy by Max Pemberton, which dates back to 1908. Pemberton was a well-known writer of his day, and I first came across his writing as a teenager, when a story of his appeared in Hugh Greene's brilliant anthology The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. What intrigurd me about Wheels of Anarchy was that Pemberton explains in a preface that the idea for the story came from his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who died young, shortly before it was written.

Now Robinson was also the chap who gave Conan Doyle the idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles. It must be very unusual for a writer (and Robinson did write some detective stories of his own) to give publishable ideas to not one but two friends, and still less common for one of them to become an all-time classic. He originated from Liverpool, and in fact I've had a business connection with his family's very old-established firm for many years. He was a remarkable man, and I hope to write more about him at a later date.

There were many other gems on sale, including a set of four books signed by Christopher Bush, and a couple of thrillers signed by Victor Bridge, as well as a signed first of Len Deighton's classic The IPCRESS File. The photos come from James M. Pickard's stand - two early, pseudonymous, Ellis Peters mysteries are in the top photo. All well outside my price bracket, but nice to see,all the same.

Another pleasant aspect of book fairs is the chance to catch up with a few friends. Unexpectedly  on Saturday, I met for the first time Catherine Hawley and her husband Rob, who were trading at a book fair for the very first time. Catherine blogs as Juxtabook and like me is a big fan of Josephine Tey and Reg Hill; I've been enjoying her blog for years, and can recommend it.


Friday, 9 January 2015

Forgotten Book - At the Villa Rose

At the Villa Rose is the name of a very good blog, run by Xavier Lechard. It derives its name from my Forgotten Book for today, the 1910 mystery novel written by A.E.W. Mason, which I've just re-read after very many years. And the book is as enjoyable and thought-provoking as Xavier's blog.

I was first introduced to Mason, and his detective Inspector Hanaud, when I was a schoolboy. I used to borrow from the local library titles in a Hodder series, edited by Michael Gilbert, which reprinted classics of mystery and adventure. It was through this series that I first came across Anthony Berkeley's Trial and Error, and Raymond Postgate's Verdict of Twelve. Two masterpieces. In other words, Michael Gilbert had excellent taste, and was a man whose judgment could be trusted.

I can't recall now much of what Gilbert had to say about Mason, but I do remember that he admired The House of the Arrow very much, and although that is, I think, a better book than At the Villa Rose, both are of a high calibre. It's worth noting that At the Villa Rose was published in 1910, before the "Golden Age" got under way, but it boasts a great version of the Holmes-Watson pairing in Hanaud and Julius Ricardo, and a clever plot, with numerous neat touches, plus a classy, cosmopolitan setting.

Mason based the story on a real life murder case, but he injected imagination into the true crime scenario. Where he erred, I think, was in revealing the solution too soon. Too much of the latter part of the book is devoted to explanation. This was a structural weakness absent from The House of the Arrow. All the same, At the Villa Rose is great fun, and Hanaud a truly appealing example of "the Great Detective."