Monday, 22 December 2014

Finishing a Book

When is a book finished? Now, I'm sure some people may think that a silly question. After all, I'm an author. If I don't know the answer, there's not much hope for me, right? Yet I don't think the answer is as obvious as it may seem. When you reach "the end", it may only be the end of the beginning. Integral to the process of writing a book is the process of revision. And that can sometimes seem an endless task.

I've "finished" two books lately, one a novel, one a non-fiction book, not to mention a handful of short stories. But I always find it rather difficult to let go, knowing that more work can, almost always, improve a piece of writing. There have to be limits, though, otherwise one would never get anything published.

My latest novel, another Lake District Mystery, is a book I'm excited about, because I feel it's the best in the series to date. Its provisional title is The Dungeon House. Yet there is always the temptation to refine a manuscript, searching for a bit more insight into character and setting, maybe one or two pithier phrases or metaphors. All the more so with a book that (as mine tend to do) has quite a large cast of characters. How can I make it easier for readers to follow what is going on, without making it too easy and the puzzles too obvious? Every day fresh ideas spring to mind. But you have to draw a line somewhere.

The same is true of The Golden Age of Murder. With non-fiction, the challenge is different but equally real. There is always more information to be discovered, more source material to find. This is a book which covers a huge amount of ground, and it is in the nature of such a book that there are gaps. I'm limited by the scope of my own reading - so why not spend more time reading around the subject, before finally sending off the manuscript? There is always more to learn...

Up to a point, such anxieties are reasonable, but any author needs to come to terms with the limits of what is realistically achievable. My answer to the question about when a book is finished is this. When I feel confident enough for readers to see it, and that is when I feel that, despite any imperfections that may remain, it's as good as I can make it within a reasonable period of time. In the end, an author does need to be willing to let go, and face up to the judgment of readers, recognising that it's impossible to please everyone. We strive, as writers, for perfection, knowing that we can never truly attain it. But if we do our best to entertain and, perhaps, inform, that's a job worth doing. And with the next book, the challenge is to make the end product even better....

Sunday, 21 December 2014

And the latest runaway bestseller is....

I was truly delighted to read a terrific and very timely article in today's Independent, telling the story of Mystery in White. Sales of the book are now already at 60,000 - in a matter of weeks. I've talked previously about this extraordinary phenomenon, but I do think that it illustrates that fiction, like so many other things in life, is subject to the vagaries of fashion.

Take Scandi crime, for instance. I was reading Sjowall and Wahloo, and the (still) much less well known Poul Orum in my teens, and remember wondering why so few people seemed to take an interest in them. It's really only in the last few years that a combination of good books, good publishing, television, and a little luck have combined to make Nordic Noir seem to be omnipresent. A reaction is setting in now, possibly, but even as public tastes shift, it will remain true that there are many very fine Scandinavian novels out there - and not just those published in recent times.

In Britain and the US, and to some extent elsewhere, the "Golden Age" between the wars saw an explosion of interest in well-plotted whodunits (and some that weren't so well plotted). Countless people had a go at writing them. The reaction, when it came after the Second World War, was correspondingly severe. Apart from Christie and a few other "Crime Queens", Golden Age auhtors and their work generally fell out of favour.

I've always loved them, though, and I began thinking about the book that eventually became The Golden Age of Murder a good many years ago (so long ago, I kept a card index at one time of my researches; that "system" didn't last!) I suppose the success of the British Library Classic Crime books shows that, if one is patient for long enough, the roulette wheel of public taste will move in one's favour. It's a shame that J. J. Farjeon is not around to see how popular his book has become in the 21st century, but it's nevertheless a heart-warming story - a reminder to authors that the books we write may, just possibly, enjoy a good life long after we are gone.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Forgotten Book - Casual Slaughters

Today's Forgotten Book is a scarce title by a Golden Age author who displayed enough talent in his brief career to make one regret that he did not continue to write detective stories. The title (a good one, as so many Shakespearean titles are) is Casual Slaughters, and the author is James Quince. James Who? do you ask? Well, his reputation has certainly faded in the eighty-plus years that have passed since his last novel appeared. But he deserves to be rescued from literary oblivion.

James Quince was a pseudonym that concealed the identity of James Reginald Spittal. Spittal attended London University and Salisbury Theological College, and was ordained in 1898. He was at one time the vicar at Holy Trinity church in Lambeth, and among his various other posts, I'm sure one or two must have been rural parishes.. In 1930, he turned to detective fiction with some success. His first two books were published by Hodder, but they seem to have dropped him, and Casual Slaughters was published by a smaller firm. I find that puzzling, because it's a splendid read, and I feel lucky that my copy is signed by the author, because I suspect there aren't many such copies knocking around.

The tale makes excellent use of the author's knowledge of the type of people who become involved with a Parochial Church Council. The book opens and ends with a PCC meeting, and it's due to the PCC's decision-making that a corpse is discovered in a village graveyard. In due course, another death occurs. The book is narrated by a bachelor called Blundell, and I came up with a solution to Quince's puzzle that I thought rather ingenious. Sadly it was wrong...

The strength of this book lies in Quince's wry humour, which has worn pretty well, on the whole. The interplay of characters is very nicely done, and I'm sure he drew on his own experiences of English village life in evoking the mood and setting. The Rector, unsurprisingly, is especially well done. It's a quiet book, but fun to read, and I'm disappointed that he never wrote another. Perhaps pastoral duties became too pressing. But I've just acquired his first book, The Tin Town, and very much look forward to reading it. Even more so after reading this review by Curt Evans, which - in a coincidence so spooky that it really ought to trigger some sort of mystery plot - appeared on the same day as this review. You know how it is, you wait decades for a review of a book by James Quince, and then two turn up at once....

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Niagara - movie review

Niagara is a 1953 movie, directed by Henry Hathaway, which I found tucked away on the tv schedules. It was described as "Hitchcockian" and starred Marilyn Monroe, and these twin temptations proved irresistible. And I'm glad I watched it, although it doesn't rank as a classic crime film by a long stretch. The most memorable aspect of the film is not even Marilyn, but the vivid photography of Niagara Falls, which play a key part in the story-line.

Casey Adams and Jean Peters play a honeymooning couple whose cabin at the Falls is taken by another pair, George and Rose Loomis, played by Monroe and Joseph Cotten. Monroe is young and sexy, but her husband is jealous and depressive. It soon emerges that he has plenty to be jealous and depressed about, since his wife is encouraging her lover to kill him.

There are a few pleasing plot developments, but on the whole the story is commonplace. In a sense, the story-line is that of a film noir - but Niagara is shot in glorious Technicolor. The contradiction is by no means utterly fatal to the mood of unhealthy emotional tension, but it does contribute to the slightly unrealistic "feel" of the film. You can have a "noir" film shot in sunlight and colour- the brilliant Body Heat is an example - but Niagara  isn't in the same league as Lawrence Kasdan's masterpiece.

Niagara is, perhaps, an attempt to focus more on the characters' emotional lives than the typical Hitchcock thriller. Again, though, this was much better done years later in Body Heat. When a film is described as "Hitchcockian", one expects edge-of-the-chair suspense, of the kind delivered in some of the best thrillers by Chabrol and Truffaut. Niagara is a lesser work, but still worth watching. And it does make me want to visit those Falls....

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Missing - BBC One - final episode review (no spoilers)

The Missing came to an end on BBC 1 tonight, after eight weeks of mounting tension. I don't intend to say anything in this post that amounts to a spoiler, which limits the scope of my comments. But one thing I can say is that, for me,this series was second only to the superb Happy Valley as British television crime series of the year. I said when reviewing episode one that I intended to watch the following week, and soon I was completely hooked. It became must-watch television.

A great deal of credit goes to the writers, Harry and Jack Williams, as well as to an excellent cast. James Nesbitt and Frances O'Connor were brilliant as the parents whose five year old son goes missing during a holiday in France, portraying with great sensitivity the trauma of such a terrible experience,and also the different ways in which their characters struggled to deal with an almost unimaginable calamity.

I say 'almost' unimaginable,because I suspect many, perhaps most, parents have found themselves contemplating, at one time or another, what it would feel like if such a catastrophe tore their lives apart. But it's not the sort of thing one wants to dwell on for very long. For me, the emotions portrayed in some scenes of The Missing were almost too much to bear.

That's not to say it was a perfect story in terms of plotting, and I had mixed feelings about the one or two aspects of the final episode, and the final scene in particular. Some viewers, I know, have found the switches between events surrounding the disappearance and those of the present day quite hard to follow, although I felt the transitions were done quite smoothly, given the complexity of the story structure. Overall, this was a powerful and affecting drama, and one that will stay in my mind for a long time.   

Monday, 15 December 2014

Bodies in the Bookshop

I've just received my author copy of Bodies in the Bookshop, edited by L.C. Tyler and Ayo Onatade, and published by Ostara Books in association with Richard Reynolds of Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge, who contributes a foreword. The idea of the book was to pay tribute to independent bookshops everywhere, and also to celebrate Heffers' annual "Bodies in the Bookshop" event.

The concept was that the stories would tackle one of four themes: books, bookshops, Cambridge, or libraries, although as things turned out, libraries do not really feature. Len, Ayo and Richard are three highly respected figures in the British crime writing community, and although I've never managed to attend the Heffers event because of day job commitments, when I was approached quite some time ago with a view to contributing a new story, I was more than happy to come up with an idea.

When time passed with no sign of the book appearing, however, I rewrote my story, and the revised version, called  "Acknowledgments", happily for me, won the CWA Margery Allingham Prize. Then, at a time when I was unsure whether the anthology would come into being, Ostara - an admirable imprint - stepped in. They took over publication, and of course I had to write something fresh. The result was "Lucky Liam", which was inspired by my trip to the North East, and Hartlepool in particular, earlier this year. I'm delighted to see it in print, and my warmest congratulations go to Len, Ayo and Richard. Suffice to say that I suspect they now share my view that producing anthologies is trickier and more time-consuming than it may seem!

The sub-title of the book is "A literary showcase of crime stories from 20 masters of the genre", and I must say that the other authors include many of my favourites, including Peter Lovesey, Andrew Taylor and Simon Brett (all CWA Diamond Dagger winners) along with Christopher Fowler, Chris Ewan, Michelle Spring, Ann Cleeves, Kate Charles and...well the list goes on and on. I'm glad to be in such prestigious company. I've not yet read the other stories, but I'm very much looking forward to doing so.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Forgotten Book - Who Was Old Willy?

Today's forgotten book is Who Was Old Willy? Ah, they don't come up with titles like that any more! The author was Milward Kennedy, and the book came out in 1940. It's possibly Kennedy's least known mystery story, and an unusual feature is that it is clearly aimed at young readers. But it's short and snappy and I found it rather quaint and appealing.

Kennedy explains that the original concept was that the story would give rise to a competition for young detectives. The question they had to answer was, indeed, about the identity of the eponymous Old Willy. The competition was a joint effort, involving The Sunday Times (for which Kennedy had been a crime reviewer), the publishers and the Junior Book Club. The newspaper was planning to hold a Book Fair, but "Hitler interfered with our plans", as Kennedy put it. The Book Fair was postponed, and so was publication of the book. The competition never happened.

But the book offers a "challenge to the reader" of essentially the same type as so many Ellery Queen novels, as well as others by the likes of Rupert Penny and Anthony Berkeley, and Kennedy is generous enough to offer a hint to would-be sleuths to help them to figure things out. It's a game, then, and one that is pleasantly contrived.

Our hero is a young boy called Harry, who befriends a mysterious and eccentric old codger, who has shut himself off from the outside world and secluded himself in a house called Woodsomes. In due course, Harry finds Willy's dead body, but this isn't a murder story. The mystery is one of identity, because it turns out that Willy was not only rich, but has left an intriguing will. Kennedy supplies several clues, and manages to strike the right note for a young readership in constructing his story. But timing is important in so many areas of life, and the unlucky timing of this book's appearance meant that it made no lasting impression. I've never seen any discussion of it anywhere, but the first time I came across a copy for sale, I snapped it up, and I'm glad I did so. I think it supplies a delightful reminder of Kennedy's talent..

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Top Ten Favourite Books About Crime Fiction

Prompted by a question posed by Lisa Shevin on the very informative Golden Age Detection Facebook forum, I've put together a list of my favourite books about the crime genre. Of course, such lists should never be taken too seriously, especially when I'm responsible for them, since I'm perfectly capable of changing my mind in a matter of hours, or forgetting titles that really should be unforgettable.

I've limited myself in three ways. First, by including only one book per author. Second, by excluding any book to which I've contributed, which rules out quite a few that I'm very fond of. Third, by excluding books about Sherlock Holmes - so many exist that they deserve a list of their own. Even so, there are many excellent books that I have enjoyed and learned from, including quite a number by good friends, that aren't on the list. So, with all those caveats (but then, I am a lawyer...), here goes:

10. The Letters of Dorothy L Sayers, vol. one. Edited by the estimable Barbara Reynolds, and the first of five remarkable collections of Sayers' correspondence,this book provides great insight into the mind and life of an extraordinary writer.

9. Whodunit? ed. H.R.F. Keating. This is a likeable book, a mixture of author bios, essays by various hands, and much more besides. I referred to it constantly in the 80s and 90s and it introduced me to some terrific novels.

8. Murder for Pleasure by Howard Haycraft. An early study of the genre, which contains bags of information, but presents it in an extremely readable form (something that can't always be said of othewise excellent books.)

7. John Dickson Carr: the man who explained miracles, by Douglas G. Greene. I was first urged to read this many years ago by Peter Lovesey, and his recommendation was spot on. Excellent about Carr, and also about the Detection Club; Doug's research was most helpful when I was working on The Golden Age of Murder.

6. A Catalogue of Crime by Barzun and Taylor. This book contains pithy paragraphs about countless otherwise obscure novels, short stories and anthologies, and more besides. The opinions are sometimes maddening,and I still marvel that they thought Knutsford (more famous as the setting for Cranford than as the town of my birth) is in Ireland. But then, all books about the genre contain mistakes - a recent example is the "academic" book that describes Ronald Knox as an American. The real test of merit is whether the book enthuses the reader, and I love this one, for all its faults.

5. Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks by John Curran. John's detective work in deciphering the notebooks and putting them into context is quite riveting. No book gives a more revealing insight into the creation of classic detective novels (though there's a brilliant chapter in Barbara Reynolds' biography of Dorothy L. Sayers that is also gripping.).

4. The Collector's Guide to Detective Fiction by John Cooper and Barry Pike. This contains lots of information about (mostly) Golden Age writers, and is a real treasure trove, with fantastic illustrations of old jackets that I find irresistible. The authors are two British doyens of writing about the Golden Age whose insights I've long admired, and learned from..

3. Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. John Reilly. The first two voluminous editions of this book again taught me a great deal about many writers I'd never heard of before. There is some fascinating stuff here, and I devoured it in my younger days. Two later editions, with different editors, did include essays by me, but Reilly's version was in many ways definitive.

2. Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey. This is sheer fun - an account of pretty much every locked room/impossible crime story -with solutions in a separate section. I sometimes read extracts during library talks, and the audiences really enjoy the snippets. Masterly research, superbly and economically presented.

1. Bloody Murder by Julian Symons. This has to be my number one. As will be seen when The Golden Age of Murder is published, I challenge quite a few of Julian's opinions, and he is apt to be criticised by some Golden Age fans. Part of this is due to his trenchancy, more of it is due to the fact that he was covering a vast amount of material in a short span - you simply can't cover every base in a book that purports to cover even a fraction of the history of crime fiction, let alone the whole of it. But it is supremely readable and well-written, and I know many people, otherwise not really interested in books about the genre, who love it. Symons was writing for the 'typical' reader rather than the specialist (and that, to be truly successful, demands a higher level of accessibility and readability than writing for specialists) but he manages to cover a vast amount of ground with aplomb.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Writing about the Crime Genre

I'm fascinated not only by crime fiction, but also by books about the genre. This stems from my teens, when I first read Julian Symons' Bloody Murder, and learned a great deal about my favourite form of entertainment reading. One of the many strengths of the book is the pointers that Symons gives to titles worth reading (including many that took me a very long time to track down - one or two I've still never seen) and I continue to refer to it regularly. Another great merit of the book, by the way, is that Symons' prose is lean and highly readable.

The book prompted me to write a letter that was the closest I've ever come to sending a fan letter. Shortly after I left university, I had the temerity to drop Symons a line, and tell him how much I admired his book - but I questioned one or two things he'd said about Francis Iles' books, and suggested that he might have mentioned C.S. Forester's Payment Deserved, which somewhat anticipates Malice Aforethought, To my delight (and surprise) he responded with a charming and very thoughtful letter; he was well aware of Forester's book, and in fact he included it in a revised edition of Bloody Murder. He had a reputation in some quarters as being a rather grumpy chap, but I found him delightful, and did so all over again, when I  met him in person two or three times, many years later.He was clearly happy to debate opinions that conflicted with his own, as long as they were expressed in a courteous and measured way, and that is surely one of the marks of a civilised mind.

Since then, I've devoured scores and scores of books about the genre in all its aspects. On Thursday, I plan to write a post about ten favourites, but now let me just mention some new or forthcoming books by friends that are quite excellent, although like many other fine books, they are not in the list. I'll be covering B.J. Rahn's The World of Sherlock Holmes shortly, and I'm very much looking forward to an ebook reissue of Jessica Mann's Deadlier than the Male which will become available soon - details to follow.

And then there's Peter Lewis's Eric Ambler: a literary biography, a revised edition of which is now available from Endeavour Press as an ebook and via Createspace in print form..Peter contributed a guest blog about the book recently, and I was delighted by its new incarnation, almost a quarter of a century after it first earned acclaim. He makes the telling point right at the end that Ambler did so much to blur the boundaries between "the novel" and "the spy novel" or "the thriller". I would add that one thing that can be wearisome in books about the genre (if overdone) is extensive discussion of distinctions between, say, "thrillers" and "detective novels" or prolonged agonising about the precise definition of a "crime novel" or a "mystery". These are all useful terms,and they have their place, but they can also assume undue importance. Focus too much on such detail, and you risk losing sight of the big picture, or becoming uncertain of its true nature. I'm not sure, for instance, whether the great Julian's thesis that the detective novel had transformed into something superior, the crime novel, was really as helpful as it may have seemed when Bloody Murder first appeared. But to say that does not diminish his overall achievement. Just as the perfect novel can't be written, nor can the perfect book about crime fiction.

Last week, Curt Evans included on his blog an interesting piece which focused on writing about the Golden Age, and mentioned The Golden Age of Murder in very positive terms. As Curt anticipates, my views differ from those of Symons and Colin Watson (whose Snobbery With Violence is nevertheless a very good read) in numerous respects. Both men had a clear and credible point of view, but it led them to overlook some of the more interesting sub-texts in Golden Age fiction. Or at least, that's what I think, and that's what The Golden Age of Murder is -in part - about. In the run-up to publication, I'll discuss a number of aspects of my approach to writing the book. It was quite a departure for me, and one that has taken a great deal of work over a good many years. But now, thank goodness, the manuscript has been copy-edited (by another writer about popular culture, in fact) and best of all, Harper Collins have agreed to take on the task of preparing the index! .

Monday, 8 December 2014

Ringing the Changes

Anyone who has ever read and enjoyed Dorothy L. Sayers' famous detective novel The Nine Tailors is likely to be intrigued by campanology, and I'm certainly no exception. After her first few novels, Sayers set about testing the boundaries of the crime genre,and The Nine Tailors integrates plot, setting and theme with considerable subtlety. She was very good on background description, and ahead of her time in this respect, because the background is not superfluous, but relevant to the storyline.

I re-read the book when I was working on The Golden Age of Murder, and was impressed all over again with Sayers' skill. It really is a shame that she only wrote a couple of detective novels after that before turning her attention elsewhere. Had she maintained her zest for the form (and for writing about true crime) she would have left an even more remarkable legacy. Incidentally, I recently read the text of a talk by Professor B.J. Rahn about The Nine Tailors, and when it is published in due course, it will represent a worthy addition to scholarship concerning Sayers's splendid book. Speaking of which, if all goes to plan, I'll be discussing the subject of writing about the genre on this blog both tomorrow and on  Wednesday.

Despite Sayers having fired my interest, I have never actually tried my hand at bell-ringing -not until Saturday, that is. A visit to Cheadle Hulme, and Kate Ellis and her husband Roger was arranged to coincide with the local Victorian day. Our own village of Lymm has had a Dickensian Day in December for many years, and it's a very good way for a community to come together in the run-up to Christmas.

Now Kate and Roger are very experienced and accomplished bell-ringers, and they spent some time demonstrating the knack of bell-ringing to visitors, whilst attired suitably in Victorian dress. Of course, I had to have a go myself. Very enjoyable, too. As in so many areas of life, I didn't quite match up to Lord Peter Wimsey's instinctive prowess, but it is fascinating to hear the bells ring as one pulls on the rope. And I managed to avoid strangling myself with the rope, which apparently is an occupational hazard....