Friday, 31 October 2014

Forgotten Book - Murder of a Lady

I stumbled across today's Forgotten Book by chance. Anthony Wynne's Murder of a Lady (1931) appeared in a dealer's catalogue a few weeks ago, a paperback at a very modest price. Should I bother with it? I wondered. After all, I've more than enough books waiting patiently to be read. And though Wynne wrote a well-known Golden Age short story, "The Cyprian Bees", I've always gathered that the consensus is, he was a rather dull writer. But I took the plunge anyway, and for some reason promoted this book to be read ahead of other more obviously deserving candidates.

I dropped lucky. Rather than being a so-so reading experience, Murder of a Lady proved to be excellent, and far surpassed my admittedly modest expectations. It's a locked room mystery, and I do have a weakness for these, but quite frankly I didn't anticipate that I'd enjoy this one rather more than some of the lesser works by the great master of the locked room, the wonderful John Dickson Carr. Carr was stronger on character and atmosphere than Wynne, for sure, but this particular book does work very well indeed.

We are plunged into the action in the opening pages. Wynne's regular amateur detective, Dr Eustace Hailey, is staying with a friend who happens to be a Procurator Fiscal when news comes of a murder in the vicinity. It's taken place in the castle, and an elderly lady has been stabbed to death. But her corpse was found in a locked room, and there's no trace of a weapon....

Another murder - quite unexpected - swiftly follows, and suspicion swirls around a small cast of suspects. Why were herring scales found at the scenes of the crime? Was the first victim not really a 'lady', but  rather a very nasty piece of work? The second question is much easier to answer than the first. Another unforeseen murder occurs before Dr Hailey starts to figure out what is going on. I found this book gripping and clever. Wynne was prolific, and it may well be that this was his masterpiece - if not,, I'd like to read any book of his that is more baffling. As you will have gathered, I really liked this one.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Missing - BBC One - TV review

The Missing, which began on BBC One this evening, is an eight-part serial, like The Intruders, which started twenty-four hours earlier. Also like The Intruders, it benefits from the presence of a strong and charismatic lead actor, in this case James Nesbitt. But the similarities end there. Whereas The Intruders was cryptic to the point of confusion, The Missing is (on the surface at least) a relatively straightforward story, written, and acted by a talented cast, with real assurance. And this story really does grip.

Part of the reason why it is so powerful is that it deals with a deep human fear - the parent's dread of the loss of a child. Surely one of the most terrible, almost unimaginable, crimes is that of abducting a small child, who is defenceless and innocent. Yet these crimes do occur from time to time, and some of the most harrowing cases of recent years have been of this type. The script, by Harry and Jack Williams, handles this emotive material very effectively. The pair are, incidentally, the sons of Nigel Williams, an excellent writer. I enjoyed his The Wimbledon Poisoner years ago, and also a TV crime serial that he wrote back in the 80s - it was called Charlie, and it was rather good.

Nesbitt and his wife (played by the equally charismatic Frances O'Connor) were on holiday in a small French town eight years ago when their five year old son Oliver went missing. His dad took his eye off him for a moment, and that was long enough for the worst to happen. What parent cannot empathise with this nightmarish situation? The events of eight years ago are intertwined with events in the here and now. Nesbitt, who is drinking too much, remains obsessed with finding his missing son, and finally stumbles on a clue. His marriage has ended, and his wife is now married to a police liaison officer (Jason Flemyng) - but in her way, she remains equally tormented by the loss of their son.

The switches between past and present worked well, and there were some tantalising glimpses of future plot complications. Something mysterious had been going on between Nesbitt and his father-in-law, and one of the French cops seems to have a secret to hide. The mystery is engrossing, but the human drama is even more compelling. I'm really not sure about The Intruders, but I'll definitely be watching the next episode of The Missing.



 

Monday, 27 October 2014

The Intruders - BBC Two - TV review

The Intruders began on BBC Two this evening with a double-header, the first two episodes of an eight part serialised supernatural thriller. The story is based on a book of the same name written by Michael Marshall Smith, who also writes as Michael Marshall. I haven't read his work (though one of his novels has lurked on my TBR pile for quite a while) but he's a best-seller, and more significantly I know some good judges who rate his books very highly. When I looked him up, I was startled to find that, like me, he was born in Knusford, but unlike me, he moved when young to Illinois. Very different from Cheshire,I bet...

I was really drawn to The Intruders by the fact that the cast is headed by John Simm. I first came across Simm a long time ago, in Cracker and The Lakes, and later I also enjoyed his performances in Life on Mars and Doctor Who. He's a very good actor, and in this show, unexpectedly, he plays an American ex-cop, who has become a writer.

He is married to a glamorous but enigmatic corporate lawyer, played by Mira Sorvino, and there are early clues that she is hiding something from him. But what? The first episode sees a rapid sequence of dramatic and confusing events. A mother and her son are shot dead by an intruder who calls at their house, looking for the woman's husband. A girl commits suicide in her bath. Later, a cat meets an unpleasant end, also in a bath. A conspiracy theorist has his head blown off by that intrusive gunman. What on earth is going on?

Probably the reason why the second episode followed immediately after the first was to give one or two more clues about the story's direction of travel. It was less cryptic, and more gripping, and I started to become more interested in the characters. Plentiful references to the number 9, and the repeated incantation of the phrase "what goes around, comes around" didn't,however,  fascinate me quite as much as the scriptwriter presumably intended. Is the story going to be strong enough to sustain eight episodes? The jury is, I think, still out on The Intruders..

L.C. Tyler - Crooked Herring: review

You know how it is. You wait for ages for a new book from a favourite author, and then two turn up at once. So it is with L.C. Tyler. It's quite some time since his last book about Ethelred Tressider, the hapless mid-list detective novelist, but now Ethelred returns in Crooked Herring. And at more or less the same time, Len has published a historical crime novel, the first in a new series. I hope to read the latter before long. In the meantime, what about Crooked Herring?

Ethelred made his debut seven years ago, in The Herring-Seller's Apprentice, a very enjoyable mystery. I read and relished it before I met the author - a point that is worth making for a couple of reasons. First, I have got to know Len since then, and we're currently both members of the CWA committee. We even now share a publisher, because he's joined me at Allison & Busby, who have supplied this new hardback with an excellent and easy-on-the-eye dustjacket. Second, there's a lot in this particular story about crime writers reviewing each other - with calamitous results. So I was bound to wonder about reviewing Len's book. But I decided to go ahead, simply because the story is such fun.

Part of the pleasure, naturally, came from all the allusions to the working lives of contemporary British crime writers. Ethelred happens to have been a judge for a particular CWA award - and in fact Len too has been a judge. There are plentiful references to Crimefest and Harrogate, as well as Amazon reviews, which play an important part in the plot. Amazon reviews are often discussed by writers, who tend to have mixed feelings about them. But there's no doubt they form an important part of the modern literary landscape, although the ability to post reviews anonymously does raise questions as to their value and validity, as well as contributing to the plot of this particular novel. Yep, sockpuppets make an appearance...

Even if I didn't know Len or his publisher (you'll have to take my word on this) I'd be pleased to recommend this book to anyone who likes humorous detective fiction. I think it's probably his best book since his debut, and possibly the best of the lot. I'll be interested to read his new series, too, but I hope very much that he won't desert Ethelred, even though at the end of the story, our hero's life is taking a very different turn. The fact that Allison & Busby are planning to reprint the earlier Ethelreds encourages me to keep my fingers crossed that Ethelred will return to solve a new puzzle before too long.


Friday, 24 October 2014

Forgotten Books - Fourfingers

At a crime festival a while back, I bumped into a crime writing friend who told me that he enjoyed reading this blog, and in particular the Friday's Forgotten Books feature. "After all, Martin," he said, "you read these books so that we don't have to." I was amused by this, although naturally I hope that my accounts of at least some of the neglected books tickle your fancy enough to prompt you to give them a try.

I must admit I did wonder whether to read Fourfingers, by Lynn Brock (the pseudonym of Alister McAllister), which dates back to 1939. It's a very obscure book, and all I knew about it was that one Golden Age expert had described it as one of the worst books he'd read. But could it really be that bad? After all, I have a sneaking regard for Brock's work. Nightmare is intriguing and ambitious, and definitely worth reading, even if The Stoat is not really worth ferreting out. McAllister wrote plays and "straight" novels as well as detective fiction, and his prose was better than that of some of his contemporaries. His great failing was verbosity.

The story makes a striking start. One evening in the New Forest, a lorry driver and his mate discover a crashed car, and near to it, the bodies of two dead ponies. Inside the car is the body of a woman, and it emerges that she has been shot. The victim is a young woman called Waterlow, who is the author of a successful (but suppressed) novel, and the wife of a very wealthy man who has been confined to a mental hospital for the past three years. The local police call in the Yard, and this means Sergeant Venn, who apparently features in two other books by Brock. Venn rejoices in the unlikely nick-name Ut - short for "Unconsidered Trifle" - because of his insignificance. In other news, a prominent politician has gone missing - can this be connected with the case? Before long, Venn is hunting "Fourfingers", the name given to the mystery man whose fingerprints are found on a cigarette case in the car.

Brock offers some interesting snippets along the way. I'd like to have been told more about "the Lunacy Laws", which sound to have been pretty eccentric themselves, and I enjoyed the job title "Master in Lunacy". Venn, and his upper class sidekick DC Kither make a nicely contrasted detective duo. There is a dodgy medic, and Nazi sympathisers play an important part, reflecting the mood of the times. I feel that Brock was trying to do something original with the detective story, and this book combines detailed police work with the material of a thriller in quite a daring way. I've read plenty of less interesting Golden Age novels by more prominent names, including books written by Douglas and Margaret Cole, by E.R. Punshon (an extremely variable novelist), and even by the gifted Milward Kennedy, when writing as Evelyn Elder, a pseudonym he seemed to reserve for his biggest flops.

Unfortunately, once a criminal gang makes its appearance, Brock loses control of his complex plot - and I felt myself losing interest. In the course of a necessarily lengthy confession that sets out to make sense of everything that has been going on, one of the bad guys says: "I was very uneasy about the whole affair, which appeared to me utterly fantastic and impossible to carry through successfully." I'm afraid that, for all Brock's brave efforts to write something fresh, this sums up my feelings about his story-line. It's a pity, but this is one Brock novel likely to remain forgotten.

Memories of Hugh C. Rae

Sometimes we meet people fleetingly,who turn out to have a disproportionately significant influence on our lives. Hugh C. Rae, whom I first met more than 25 years ago, was someone in that category as far as I'm concerned, and I was sorry to read of his recent death at the age of 78.

My first encounter with Hugh came in the context of a writers' competition. There is a very good writers group in Southport, and I attended a number of their annual get-togethers in a seafront hotel in that pleasant resort. Each year, there was a competition that anyone could enter. When I heard that the competition involved writing the first chapter of a novel, I decided to submit the first chapter of the Liverpool-based detective story that I was writing at the time. In fact, I hadn't got much further than the first chapter at that stage.

My entry didn't win the prize, but Hugh made some helpful comments. He'd written thrillers himself, and said that he liked my writing. I found this very encouraging, and carried on with the book. That first chapter - much re-written, I have to say, since I took on board his advice - became the first chapter of All the Lonely People. In one of the essays that appear in the ebook version, I mention Hugh's influence on the story, and also the fact that, years later, it was a real pleasure to meet him again at a couple of CWA conferences in Scotland. He was a convivial chap, who cared passionately about writing.

He wrote under his own name and under various pseudonyms, but ironically he achieved his greatest commercial success with historical romances written as by Jessica Stirling. On meeting Hugh, a craggy Glaswegian, you would not imagine him as a writer of light popular romance, but the point was that he was a real professional, someone who could write in a range of different styles, and treat each genre he tackled on its merits. I shall continue to have fond memories of him, and the example he set, of treating a young and enthusiastic but rather unsophisticated writer with kindness and respect..

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Woman of Straw - film review

To my astonishment, I find that almost six years have passed since I reviewed Catherine Arley's suspense novel  Woman of Straw on this blog in its early days. Arley is an interesting French writer, and having enjoyed the book, I've been trying for ages to track down the film version, to no avail. Recently I chanced upon a Spanish DVD version, available on Amazon, with the facility to switch off the Spanish language and hear the original actors' voices. So I grabbed it.

I'm glad I did, because it's a very watchable film, set partly in a very grand English mansion, and partly on a private yacht cruise of the Med. The fact that the stars are Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida makes it even more watchable. The film was first screened in 1964, when Connery was already anxious to avoid becoming typecast as James Bond, and he has a quite hypnotic screen presence here.

Ralph Richardson plays Connery's odious uncle. He is racist, sexist and incredibly rich. You are already guessing that he is a prospective victim, aren't you? Well, you are right. He hires a new nurse, the lovely Gina, and soon the nasty old man falls for her. But what about his nephew? His motives seem equivocal, and before long he is encouraging Gina to marry the old man. What's he playing at, and who can be trusted?

At one point, there appears to be a glaring legal error in the script, but this is subsequently explained as representing one of the numerous plot twists. The direction, by Basil Dearden, is extremely competent, even if the characters' motivations aren't explored in any depth. Some commentators suggest that Hitchcock would have shown more flair, given the melodramatic potential of the story. However, the evidence of Marnie, first screened in the same year, and also starring Connery, suggests otherwise. Personally, I enjoyed the film, and felt my long search for it was worth while. The book is superior, but both are entertaining, and a little bit different.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Mayday (BBC, 2013) - DVD review

Mayday, screened on BBC One last year, is a five-part whodunit with pagan/mystical elements, and a curse plays a part in the story. It's tempting to think that the show itself was cursed, because it suffered an extraordinary misfortune. The first part of the script, by Ben Court and Caroline Ip, was written in 2006, and the programme was finally filmed in the very damp May of 2012, before being screened the following year. And what happened? it coincided with ITV's Broadchurch, regarded by me and by other more notable judges as the best crime drama of the year, that's what happened. Poor old Mayday suffered badly by comparison.

A friend who is a good judge had told me that Mayday was inferior, and it is true, I think, that Broadchurch is a more successful drama. However, I decided recently to see what it was like, and acquired the DVD version. What I found was that Mayday is intensely watchable, and although it suffers from a slightly unsatisfactory finale, I think it bears comparison with Broadchurch in terms of quality.

The coincidental overlap between Mayday and Broadchurch is, however, remarkable. Both are strong dramas that offer a whodunit mystery, but also the portrayal of a relatively upmarket south of England community that is torn asunder when a child goes missing. In both stories, a man suspected of being a paedophile is vilified by a local lynch mob. In each case, he commits suicide. In both stories, there is a strong female character, a police officer, whose husband is a suspect. And the coincidences don't end there.

Mayday does, however, offer an interesting, and rather ambitious, added element. This was the concept of "old England" paganism, with dark deeds taking place in the rural woodland. Some reviewers didn't like this aspect of the story, but I felt it added depth, although perhaps it wasn't developed as fully as it might have been; this contributed to the slightly uncertain mood of the story. I also felt more could have been made of the fact that the victim, and the girlfriend of the son of one of the suspects, were twins.

Finally, the cast of Broadchurch was superb. The acting in Mayday is also good, but I did think that the (very talented) actors cast as the teenagers were too old for their supposed characters. Peter Firth agonised credibly as a voyeuristic businessman, and Aidan Gillen was suitably sleazy as a widower with an eye for young girls. Lesley Manville was, arguably, miscast as the businessman's unfeeling wife, but Sophie Okonedo was brilliant as the cop who has given up work to devote herself to her family. Her performance was, for me, as good as Olivia Colman's in Broadchurch. Yesterday, I wrote in this blog about being appreciated. I really do hope that those who worked so hard on Mayday will have their efforts appreciated by people who, like me, watch the show on DVD. They were so unlucky that they were simply in the wrong place on the television schedules at the wrong time.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Appreciation

A group of my closest work colleagues took me out for dinner the other evening. It was a generous gesture, marking my decision to cut back considerably on my working week, in order to spend more time wriitng. They regaled me with witty anecdotes from our shared past, and I felt very glad, as well as touched, that they had enjoyed working together over the years,.

One question they asked was how I felt about being reviewed, and in particular about negative reviews. My feeling on this has always been that anyone who publishes a book has to be prepared for the inevitability that some people won't like it. It's also inevitable that, sooner or later, you will have the misfortune to come across a critic whose motives are questionable. No writer enjoys bad reviews, but as long as a review is written in good faith, and is fair-minded (so the reviewer should, I think, strive to blend criticisms with proper recogntion of postive aspects of the book), there's no point in being upset. Criticism that is constructive, whether from an agent, editor or reviewer, is valuable, and I've certainly tried to improve over the years by listening to people whose judgment I trust. Equally, theres no point in being distracted by the opinions of those with an axe to grind. If there is an advantage to not being a best-seller, perhaps it is that people with axes to grind tend to focus their attention on the big names!

All the same, it's always pleasing to read some unexpected enthusiastic comment about one's work. Through lack of time, I don't spend as long checking out the various excellent book blogs as I'd like to, but I've just come across a post by Puzzle Doctor which made my day. Is Yesterday's Papers in particular, and  the Harry Devlin series in general, under-appreciated? Of course, I'm tempted to think so, just as I like to think that their increased availability, thanks to the arrival of ebooks, will help in time to remedy that..And I must say these appreciative words about books I wrote, for the most part, in the early days of my career as a novelist, truly gratifying..

Friday, 17 October 2014

Forgotten Book - Nightmare (1975)

There are several books called Nightmare - I've covered Lynn Brock's intriguing book with this title previously - but today my subject is the novel of that name by Arthur La Bern. Until I found this Pan paperback in a dealer's catalogue, I only knew of La Bern as the author of Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, which became Hitchcock's serial killer film Frenzy, with a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer. So obscure did poor old La Bern become that even Shaffer spelled his name wrongly in his entertaining but somewhat unreliable memoirs. Yet he was not always obscure - far from it.

La Bern was born in London to French parents, and liked to describe himself as a Gallic cockney. He became a journalist,spending time as a crime reporter and also as a war correspondent in the Far  East. After the war ended, he wrote true crime books about the Acid Bath Murders and the Brides in the Bath Murders, and wrote TV screenplays for, among other shows, Fabian of the Yard and the Edgar Wallace Mysteries. His fiction seems to have focused on the sleazier aspects of London life. Among his novels, It Always Rains on Sunday became a successful example of British noir film making in the late Forties. Night Darkens the Street, inspired by the Hulten-Jones case, was filmed as Good Time Girl with Dennis Price and Herbert Lom among the cast. So he was quite a considerable figure in his day, and I'd be interested to learn more about him. Can any readers of this blog cast any further light on the man and his books?

Nightmare was a novel written late in his career, and I found it surprising and at times bizarre. The blurb on the paperback cover led me to expect a story in the manner of the late Patrick Quentin books. An alcoholic barrister whose wife has left him for a gangster takes an ovedose, but is rescued and put in a mental ward. "Then someone killed his wife's lover," the blurb continues, "and the nightmare went on and on..."

But this isn't really a story about murder. It's a short novel, but constructed in an odd way. Most of the book is set in a couple of mental hospitals, and it is soon apparent that La Bern has a very dark view of them indeed. In the second half of the book there are a number of relatively lurid sex scenes and there is at times a rather trashy feel to the story, while some of the topical detail now seems dated. But La Bern was a writer who, it seems to me, used melodramatic material to try to make serious points about the sinister side of society, though not with consistent success. Here he seems keen to deliver a message about the way m which people suffering from mental illness are treated. This resonated with me, because in the same year that this book was written, I made several visits to a friend in mental hospital; all I need say is that the experience made a profound and lasting impression on me. Those were the days when ECT treatment was quite common, and La Bern's novel reflects that reality.

La Bern also makes points about the sexual abuse of the vulnerable which may well have been regarded as the stuff of fiction in the 70s, but now, when we know much more about the behaviour of Jimmy Savile and others, seem shockingly realistic. Was La Bern driven to write Nightmare by some form of direct or indirect personal experience? It seems possible, but I simply don't know. The trouble is that some other aspects of the narrative remain implausible, and the unsatisfactory story structure diminishes the book's impact. Nightmare is a flawed novel, then, but very unusual and not, in the end, anything like the work of Patrick Quentin..