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..


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....

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Golden Age of Murder

I'm very much looking forward to the publication next spring of The Golden Age of Murder. This week, I completed work on the final edit of the manuscript, and I've been impressed with (and hugely grateful for) the care lavished on the book so far by Harper Collins. Their enthusiasm really is good for morale, and as all writers know, morale does matter.

The cover artwork is, at the moment, still "work in progress", but with my editor's okay, I thought I'd share with you the latest version, as some readers may be interested in gaining an insight into the thought processes of a major publisher when working on such things.The jacket is envisaged as being in matt black,with the figures picked out in gloss varnish, and the gold areas foiled, to give the book a rather sumptuous feel and reflect the 'Golden' aspect of the 'Golden Age'. The hope is that it will not only look good, but stand out in the bookshops.

Only a minority of readers will, perhaps, spot the fact that the artwork also reflects the Golden Age in another way - this is a twenty-first century take on the artwork used back in the Thirties for the Colliins Crime White Circle paperback series. This strikes me as a lovely idea. And here, by way of illustration, is a White Circle cover from one of the most famous of all detective novels...

Friday, 14 November 2014

Forgotten Books - Hendon's First Case

I've warmed to John Rhode, author of today's Forgotten Book, Hendon's First Case, which originally appeared in 1935. When I first read Rhode, a long time ago, I found his work less than enthralling, and this reaction chimed in with a widespread consensus that Rhode's work was rather dull. Julian Symons thought so,and so did Harry Keating, along with other good judges. Dissenters who argued Rhode's merits were heavily outnumbered. However, Barry Pike and Stephen Leadbeater were among his advocates years ago, and I recall lively discussion about Rhode and other "humdrum" writers at the Shots on the Page convention at Nottingham in the Nineties. Over the years, too, I noticed how eagerly sought after Rhode's novels are, and I started coming across collectors who not only liked Rhode, but were prepared to pay prices I found startling for some of his scarcer titles.

A few years ago, I decided to give him another try, and was more impressed. Perhaps you just have to be in the right mood to enjoy Rhode -although I think much depends on which book you read. He wrote far too much, and didn't take as much care over his writing as he did over the elaborate murder methods used by his criminals. I now think, however, that if you pick the right book, you can find plenty of interest in John Rhode, while Curt Evans in particular has sung his praises to such good effect that Rhode's fan base continues to grow..

For me, much of the appeal of Hendon's First Case lies in the light it casts on developments in police work. This was actually a very topical book indeed when it first came out. The eponymous Hendon is the police college that turned out a new breed of well-educated officer, and the theme of the story is the contrasting methods and outlooks of traditional policemen, such as Rhode's Superintendent Hanslet, and younger men like Cambridge-educated Jimmy Waghorn. In this story Waghorn makes his debut; he went on to become an important series character. Rhode explains the tensions between the old style of police work and the new, and does a very good job of integrating those tensions with the narrative.

The plot involves ptomaine poisoning, and there is a characteristically clever idea behind the crime at the heart of the novel. There is also extensive discussion of ciphers, although Rhode delves into too much detail here for modern reader tastes. Where the book falters is in the finale. Once the cunning scheme has been explained, Rhode (like his amateur detective Dr Priestley, who of course is even smarter than Hanslet and Waghorn put together) loses interest. The story is wrapped up in a perfunctory way, and the last few pages read as though written by a man desperate to meet a deadline (all writers know that feeling,but it's a big mistake to rush an ending.) Not a masterpiece, then, but a book that is clever, and noteworthy for the material about British policing..

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Warren Clarke R.I.P.

I was sorry to learn of the death yesterday of Warren Clarke, who will be remembered fondly by many readers of this blog as the actor who played Andy Dalziel in the BBC TV series based on Reginald Hill's wonderful books. He was 67, and quite apart from having the distinction of being a lifelong Manchester City supporter, he was a fine (and surprisingly versatile) actor. I say 'surprisingly' versatile, because his formidable physical presence and craggy looks meant that he was a natural for 'tough' roles. But his approach was nuanced (perhaps all that suffering inflicted by City over the years had an effect), and his list of credits was impressive.

He appeared in Coronation Street and that wonderful show The Avengers early in his career, and worked alongside Clint Eastwood, as well as featuring in A Clockwork Orange. His crime series credits include another show that was a favourite of mine as a teenager, Softly, Softly, and (like most other leading British actors) he turned up in Midsomer on one occasion.

I first took real notice of him when he starred in Nice Work, based on a book by David Lodge, as a crusty businessman confronted by a feminist academic, played by Haydn Gwynne. This wasn't a crime show, but it was memorable, because not enough books and TV shows, in my opinion, explore working life in the business world adequately, and Nice Work was superbly done.

It's nearly 20 years ago that Reg Hill invited me to the preview of the first episode of Dalziel and Pascoe, A Clubbable Woman. After the disappointment of the Hale and Pace version of his work, he was much more hopeful that a script by Alan Plater and a cast including Warren Clarke would be true to his stories. I trooped along to the RSA in London, and was really impressed. It was clear right from the outset that the series would be a success. That was the only time I encountered Warren Clarke in person, and he seemed excited by the potential of the character. From 1996 to 2007 he played Andy with gusto, making his name and Reg's. I remember that occasion vividly, and I'll remember Warren Clarke as an actor who was talented, and lucky, enough to find the perfect role and make the very best of it.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Bear Island - film review

Bear Island is a 1979 film based on book by Alistair MacLean that I read when it first appeared as a paperback. As a teenager, I was a huge MacLean fan, and devoured all his novels, including a couple written under the name of Ian Stuart. Although he was an action thriller writer, he often used devices familiar to whodunit fans, above all "the least likely suspect", and this is why I preferred his books to those written by other thriller writers of the time such as Desmond Bagley (though I really did like Bagley), Duncan Kyle and so on.

I also watched several of the films based on MacLean's books, such as Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare, When Eight Bells Tolls and Puppet on a Chain. Some were relatively faithful to the source, whereas others (notably Ice Station Zebra) were not. The problem I began to find with MacLean was that the quality of his work began to deteriorate, and Bear Island was the last of his novels that I really enjoyed. By the time I got into student life, my reading tastes had shifted, and I didn't bother to watch the film of Bear Island.

Had I done so, I would have found that, once again, the screenplay bore little resemblance to the book. There's a starry cast, led by Donald Sutherland as the daring hero, joining up with an expedition to a remote frozen island in the North Atlantic Unfortunately, Vanessa Redgrave, cast as the love interest, is wholly wasted as a Norwegian medic, and her accent is as dodgy as Richard Widmark's attempted German accent. Christopher Lee, who is rarely less than excellent, is not at his best, either, while Lloyd Bridges takes the role of Sutherland's trusted friend (and regular readers of MacLean will know what that means....)

The action scenes are very well done, but the story is laboured and over-long. I wanted to see what the landscape of Bear Island really looks like, and felt cheated when I learned that the film was shot in Canada and Alaska, because the landscape there is more photogenic. All in all, this film is a decent time-passer, but not as good as, say, Where Eagles Dare. Watching it has, however, reminded me of my long ago enthusiasm for MacLean, and I'm tempted to write more about him in the future.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

In yet another reminder of the enduring, and seemingly eternal, appeal of Sherlock Holmes, the Museum of London is running an exhibition devoted to the great consulting detective. I was lucky enough to have an hour to spare in the capital the other day, and seized the chance to pay a visit. I'm glad I did. Like the other visitors who were there at the same time - and there were plenty of them; this is a popular show - I found much to enjoy.

Plenty of rare and precious items are on display, and I tremble to think what prices they would fetch if they ever came on to the market. We have, for instance, not only Conan Doyle's initial notes about Sherrinford Holmes and Ormond Sacker (in due course, the latter became Dr Watson) but also early illustrations for their stories, most notably by the legendary Sidney Paget. It's also wonderful to see that first manuscript, with the title A Tangled Skein crossed out. Conan Doyle opted for A Study in Scarlet instead.

There are numerous clips from film and TV, and I was glad to see moments from the Douglas Wilmer series that ran when I was a boy, as well as extracts featuring, among others, Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushiing. I also loved an interview with Sir Arthur himself, filmed in 1927, just three years before he died, in which he discussed the genesis of the character, and what he was trying to do.

Inevitably, the Museum of London focuses heavily on the London background to the stories, and of course this plays an important part n their appeal. We see the cover of the original Strand magazine, of course, but also depictions of fog in the city, and much more besides. Although I'm an admirer of J.M.W. Turner, I had no idea that he'd painted The Reichenbach Falls, and I was really delighted to discover this in the exhibition too. There's not much (apart from mention of Poe) discussion of Sherlock's place in the genre as a whole, or the breadth of his influence. But this is a quibble from a genre fan. It's a fun exhibition, and I can recommend it.

My own enthusiasm for Sherlock has revived strongly in the past few years, and I'm contemplating writing a story featuring Professor Moriarty in the near future. I've been pleasantly surprised by the sales figures for my first original ebook, The New Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. The knowledge that plenty of readers out there want to devour more Sherlockian mysteries is encouraging me to write more of them myself. And if I needed a further nudge, this exhibition provided it.