Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Crime series: the second generation

This is my 200th blog post in 202 days - a statistic that reminds me that one of the challenges of writing is to keep up the momentum. All the more so when writing a series. Readers who like a particular detective like a regular diet of his or her mysteries. This is one of the reasons why publishers get nervous when their authors try to do something different.

In the days of Poirot and Marple, fictional detectives tended not to ‘grow’ much as characters. But Dorothy L. Sayers was perhaps the most notable early pioneer of the series in which the hero does develop as the years pass. And now it’s commonplace for readers to follow their favourite detective’s private life with as much enthusiasm as they follow his or her cases.

So what do you do when you come back to a series after a long gap? This was the central challenge for me when writing Waterloo Sunset. Should I ignore the passage of time or confront it head on. I decided on the latter course. In this I was encouraged by a conversation with Andrew Taylor. Andrew is a wonderful writer, now receiving the acclaim he has long deserved. I have happy memories of appearing on a panel with him at St Hilda’s, Oxford, and our joint event at the now sadly defunct Mysterious Bookshop in London, when we were both published by Hodder. He sets a very good example for others by varying what he writes and, having produced about half a dozen titles in his Lydmouth series, featuring that excellent 1950s cop Richard Thornhill, he moved on to other projects for a while. But when he returned to Lydmouth, it seemed to me that the new books were even stronger than their predecessors. He told me that he thought of these as a ‘second generation’ of the Lydmouth series, and this concept stuck in my mind.

In applying it to the Harry Devlin series, I focused on two things. First, the changes in his home city of Liverpool. These have been quite remarkable in recent years. The city has long been stereotyped (usually by people who don’t know it well) as a faded relic of Britain’s maritime past. But it’s always retained a strong and appealing character, and although areas of deprivation remain, the city’s history and traditions are deeply impressive. Now, though, regeneration has meant that some parts of the city, especially close to the waterfront, are quite dazzling, and it’s hard to believe that it’s still Liverpool.

I wanted to capture the ambivalent reactions of a middle-aged native of the city to massive change and upheaval both in his environment and in his personal life. Harry and Liverpool have come a long way since the days of Eleanor Rigby (see the photo) and his first adventure, All the Lonely People. The more I focused on these ideas as the thematic heart of the book, the more excited I became...

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Kate Ellis

I’ve just finished reading the latest entry in Kate Ellis’s Wesley Peterson series, The Blood Pit. Kate is a friend, so it’s good to report that not only is this novel well up to her usual standard, it’s possibly her best yet.

As usual with the Wesley books, the setting is Tradmouth (a thinly veiled Dartmouth), with a brief excursion to Chester. And as before, Kate combines a story from the past (involving licentious monks) with a present day mystery, this time involving a blood-fixated serial killer whom the press dubs The Spider.

Like me, Kate is a great fan of the Taggart television series, particularly in its hey-day when Mark McManus was alive, and she seeks to build mysteries with complex and challenging puzzles. One of the consequences of this approach is that in this book there is a large cast of characters and a sequence of interlinking mysteries. It isn’t easy for an author to handle such ingredients so effectively as to make the book appear effortless – trust me, I know how hard it is! But with The Blood Pit, Kate has mastered this very difficult trick, and that’s why it is such a successful piece of work, a thoroughly professional updating of the traditional mystery. There’s plenty of sex and violence, but it’s tastefully handled, without the explicit or exploitative feel of some serial killer novels.

This is the twelfth Wesley Peterson novel. But from now on, Kate will be running a second series alongside her first. Look out for Seeking the Dead, which will introduce a new detective, Joe Plantagenet.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Liza Cody

Liza Cody burst on to the scene in 1980 with Dupe, featuring a likeable female p.i. called Anna Lee. The book was an immediate hit and won the John Creasey Memorial Award for best debut novel. It introduced me to a writer I have admired ever since, and whom eventually I enjoyed meeting after I joined the Crime Writers Association.

Liza has never been especially prolific, and the slightly disappointing television series featuring Anna Lee in the early 1990s (starring the lovely, but possibly miscast Imogen Stubbs) seems to have deterred her from continuing with her series detective. Anna remains, however, one of my favourite female detectives.

Liza has written a number of other novels, the most successful of which was probably Bucket Nut (1992), which won the CWA Silver Dagger (an award now sadly discarded.) She has also written some very effective short stories, and Crippen & Landru have published a collection of them called Lucky Dip. The book has a very interesting, and characteristically modest, introduction written by the author herself. She says ‘I have always been intimidated by the short story’, but to read her work, you would never guess. In collaboration initially with Michael Z. Lewin (of whom, more at a future date), and later also with Peter Lovesey, she edited three CWA anthologies, and when the three of them decided to move on to other projects, I took over as series editor.

Nearly thirty years after that first novel, Liza Cody has a secure reputation in the crime field, and yet there is a sense that a writer of such talent has a good deal more to offer. Whatever it turns out to be, I’d bet that it will be well worth reading.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Music to write by

You might say that there are two types of writer: those who required complete quiet when they write - and those who don’t, and who (in most cases) listen to music whilst they work. I’m firmly in the latter camp.

The only explanation I can offer is that, when I was a schoolboy doing my homework, my parents always had the television on in the room where I was working. So I’ve always been accustomed to something going on in the background. (Of course, you may say I’d be a better writer if I worked in silence, but that’s another matter entirely…)

So what do I listen to? Here is a selection taken from my most played tracks (some of them fairly obscure, it must be said) from the iTunes library on the computer I use for writing:

Roy Budd – Get Carter
John Barry – Body Heat
John Barry – Midnight Cowboy
John Barry – The Persuaders
Chiara Civello – Trouble
Dave Koz – Don’t Give Up
Carly Simon – Coming Around Again
Carly Simon - Why
Shonagh Daly – The Woman in White
Matt Monro – On Days Like These
Joni Mitchell – Man from Mars
David Bowie – Life on Mars
Al Stewart – On the Border
Burt Bacharach – Please Explain
Burt Bacharach – The Sundance Kid
Dionne Warwick – Captives of the Heart
Aretha Franklin – Falling Out of Love
Chris Botti – The Last Three Minutes
Joana Zimmer – Hearts Don’t Lie
Ronald Isley – Love’s Still the Answer
Desmond Child – Obsession
Siedah Garrett – Everchanging Times

A good many of these tracks are wholly or mainly instrumental, often composed specifically for film or tv, and perhaps that’s why they suit me when writing.

Saturday, 26 April 2008


Fracture is a newish (2007) legal thriller starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling and in many ways it is a mixture of familiar ingredients. There’s a bit of Columbo, a dash of Silence of the Lambs, a touch of The Firm and Jagged Edge, and even, for fans of traditional detection, a hint of John Dickson Carr and The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Hopkins plays Ted Crawford, an engineer who has devised a huge and elaborate executive toy which features intriguingly in the credits and which I hoped (to no avail, sadly) might play a very ingenious part in the unravelling of the plot as well as creating a mood of intricacy and menace. Ted is married to gorgeous Jennifer, but unfortunately has become aware that she is having an affair with a younger, better-looking man who just happens to be a cop. So Ted devises an ingenious revenge. He shoots Jennifer in the head – and then calls the police to an apparent hostage situation, only to make a calm and clear confession.

When the case comes to court, the legal fun begins, for Crawford has planned his escape from justice with considerable cunning. What, above all, has happened to the murder weapon? It seems to have disappeared from a ‘locked room’ crime scene.

Gosling is Willy Beachum, an ambitious young prosecutor obsessed with winning, who has just blagged his way into a job with a glitzy law firm. Even by Hollywood standards, though, Wooton Simms is a truly nasty outfit and even the fact that Willy’s new boss is Rosamund Pike (in real life, an English graduate from Wadham College, Oxford, but here playing a glamorous but flaky L.A. attorney) does not make it any better. Willy soon finds that he has to choose between his career aspirations and nailing Crawford with the crime. We know that there can be only one outcome, but the film handles this particular sub-plot efficiently, if not with an excess of subtlety. And the plotting as a whole is pretty well done.

I watched the movie whilst beginning a recovery from a sudden onslaught by a stomach bug at least as unpleasant as Ted Crawford. Fracture is the sort of film often dismissed by snooty (or lazy) critics with the two words: ‘enjoyable hokum’. Well, maybe it is, but it entertained me from start to finish and for two hours provided a welcome escape from the lure of hypochondria.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Douglas Stewart

It’s been a very busy week, with plenty of good things happening, and last night I had dinner with Douglas Stewart and his family. Douglas and I are members of that group of writers, numerous in the USA, but few in the UK, of practising lawyers who write crime fiction.

We first met through work. Douglas founded an international group of law firms, of which my firm is a member. Later we got together in London and he introduced me to the world of casinos – on which he has great expertise. I’m not a gambler by nature, but I found that a casino is a great place to people-watch, and Douglas’ explanation of what was going on was quite riveting.

After a spell as senior partner of a prestigious London law firm which he’d set up, Douglas moved to Las Vegas, and we met during the Las Vegas Bouchercon and again last year when I visited my American publishers Poisoned Pen Press in Phoenix (the photo of Douglas was taken at the Poisoned Pen Bookshop in Scottsdale.) We drove around that part of Arizona for a couple of days and had a great time together. More recently, he’s been on the move again, this time relocating to Cyprus. But last night he ventured somewhere slightly less exotic – with a trip to Lymm.

Douglas’s crime writing career has at times been interrupted by work commitments, but he began at the top, having a novel called Cellar’s Market picked up by the legendary Collins Crime Club editor Elizabeth Walter. His later work has included thrillers such as Undercurrent, a book about piracy called The Brutal Seas, and most recently a thriller focusing on the idea of taking revenge against a casino: Late Bet. Meanwhile, he has made a foray into short fiction with a story called ‘The Inglenook’, which is to be found in the new CWA anthology, M.O.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Home Ground

I’d never written for live performance until I was commissioned to write a Victorian murder mystery event – which turned into ‘Who Killed George Hargrave?’ The event was originally requested by Cheshire Libraries, and first performed at Ellesmere Port, back in 2004. I thought I would probably run the event a few more times, and then that would be it. Apart from any other consideration, I assumed I would find it dull putting on the same event time and time again. I’ve got a pretty low boredom threshold and I’m really keen on variety.

But things didn’t turn out the way I expected, and ‘Who Killed George Hargrave?’ has now been performed a good many times since then – in fact, half a dozen times already this calendar year. On each occasion, a different cast and a new venue make it all seem fresh, even to me.

The event has been performed up and down England, but last night, it came home – to newly refurbished and re-opened Lymm Library. I was startled, though, when Cheryl, a librarian closely involved with the event, who also played the character of Martha Foxall, told me that the youthful cast were not going to read their scripts, but actually memorise them. High risk, I thought. The script is quite tightly worded, and it would be easy to miss some vital clues.

However, the cast performed with real gusto and the result was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The scene setting also included a number of original touches. But that’s the last Victorian mystery until October (when the suspects in George’s murder will re-surface in Blackpool.) I’ll be getting on with the new novel over the summer. At least, that’s the plan.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Eternally and Melusine

I’ve been contacted by David Stuart Davies, editor of a forthcoming collection of short stories called Crime Scene to be published by Wordsworth (best known for its reprints of many classic novels.) He’s planning to include a couple of stories of mine in the book. This is the sort of news that always gladdens a writer’s heart. It’s good to see a story given a second (or third or fourth) life.

‘Eternally’ was the first short story that I set overseas. It’s about a 1960s American songwriting duo. I’m an admirer of the craftsmen and women who worked in the legendary Brill Building and the story draws on what I read about them, together with an essay written about Burt Bacharach at around the time he wrote his one and only stage musical, ‘Promises, Promises’ (a performance of which features in The Devil in Disguise.)

‘Melusine’ is very different. It’s a story set at the time when foot and mouth disease was ravaging the English countryside and it’s one of the short stories of mine that I’m proudest of. Before I wrote it, I was more or less typecast as an urban writer (‘gritty’ was an adjective used by many reviewers, although to be honest I never saw either myself or the books as all that gritty.) Writing a satisfactory story with a rural setting gave me the confidence to try a different style of writing. And the end result was the Lake District Mysteries.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Renewing the city

With the coming of spring, regenerated Liverpool is beginning to bloom. I’m getting into the mood for the publication of Waterloo Sunset by taking a look at some of the city’s most character-full landmarks, old and new. After being closed for three years, the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool has re-opened (see the picture) and I popped in for a quick lunchtime visit to see how much has changed.

The Bluecoat is a lovely old building, beautifully restored, refurbished and extended. I must admit, though, that I mourn the passing of the old garden at the back of the building. They featured in my second novel, Suspicious Minds, as a place where Harry Devlin liked to sit and reflect. The revamped gardens are light and airy, though, and the place as a whole is full of charm.

Yoko Ono is one of the contributors to the exhibitions on show at the Bluecoat at the moment. I like her wishing tree, which is currently in the garden. But let’s just say that her film of flies crawling over her naked body is probably an acquired taste. The other artworks are interesting and I’m aiming to go back soon to take a longer look at them.

Just across the way from the Bluecoat, incidentally, is the Liverpool Athenaeum, a club that is more than two hundred years old. I’m a proprietor there, and although I don’t get as many chances to spend time there as I’d like, the place is – like the Bluecoat – an utterly fascinating oasis right in the centre of the city. Its private library is quite outstanding. Before Easter, I had the pleasure of giving Tim Heald a tour of the place and he agreed that it’s terrific. If you ever get the chance of a visit, grab it.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Double Indemnity

I’ve watched Double Indemnity again, for the first time in perhaps twenty years, and had the chance to appreciate once more the economy and strength of one of the finest of all crime movies.

It benefits from superb ingredients. The source material is a short novel by James M. Cain, at his sinewy best. The director is the great Billy Wilder, the script came from Wilder and Raymond Chandler – a dazzling combination if ever there was one. Barbara Stanwyck was never better than here, as the vampish Phyllis Dietrichson, who seduces the smart but weak Walter Neff, played by the likeable Fred MacMurray, and leads him along the path to the gas chamber. And scene after scene is stolen by Edward G. Robinson as the obsessive claims investigator, Barton Keyes.

But even a feast comprising the finest ingredients can turn into a disaster if something goes wrong in the kitchen. Wilder’s sure touch, though, was integral to the success of a film that garnered six Academy Award nominations. Even though I knew the story very well, even though we know from the outset – thanks to the clever use of a flashback narrative – that Walter is doomed, it is still impossible not to be hooked from the opening scenes.

Wilder makes us care about the characters. Phyllis may be the ultimate femme fatale, but Walter Neff is a regular guy, betrayed by his lust for a beautiful woman. And the final scene, when Keyes cradles his injured friend and helps him to a last cigarette before the police and the ambulance arrive, has a genuine tenderness rare in a film of this kind. Murder movie making seldom got better than this. If by any chance you haven’t seen it, you have a real treat in store.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Ken McCoy

Ken McCoy’s latest book is called Loser, but in real life he’s clearly one of the winners. I got to know Ken and his wife through our shared membership of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, and he’s a very congenial companion.

A glance at his c.v. shows the range of his accomplishments. He ran his own building company for 25 years, during which time he worked as a freelance artist, and he has become a successful after-dinner speaker, as well as appearing on television, radio and stage. He’s also found time for a family of five children while producing no fewer than thirteen novels.

Several of his books, interestingly, fall into the genre of romantic fiction. But he isn’t the only male crime writer to have ventured into this territory – a very successful example is Hugh C. Rae, who wrote a number of best-sellers as Jessica Stirling in addition to some sound thrillers.

Loser features Sam Carew, whom I first encountered in Mad Carew, a few years back. Sam is an ex-cop who has moved into the building business, but still keeps his hand in with a bit of private detective work. I’m looking forward to reading Loser, even though it does involve the savage murder of a lawyer. Then again, I’ve killed off a few lawyers myself. In fiction, that is.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Publication approaches

The UK edition of Waterloo Sunset makes its bow this coming week. It’s always an exciting time when the latest book is published. Of course, nothing can quite match the extraordinary experience of seeing one’s very first book for the very first time. But, although I’ve now had a dozen novels published, as well as a variety of non-fiction books, I’ve never become blasé about it. It’s a privilege to have a book published, perhaps a cause for pride, and certainly a reason to be cheerful (as well as relieved that all that hard labour has finally resulted in a visible end product.)

The appearance of Waterloo Sunset is a particular cause for pleasure. I had the idea for the story about eight years ago, and actually wrote a synopsis at the time. But I’d written seven books featuring Harry Devlin, and I wanted a change. I’m sure that it’s beneficial to a writer to vary what he or she writes. On the other hand, publishers tend to be nervous about any change of direction; this is sometimes for sound commercial reasons, but I feel it’s better to take the long view. A writer who becomes stale will start producing formulaic fiction. You can get away with that for a while, especially if you sell well, but it’s not a good idea. Sooner or later, readers will become tired and want to move on. It’s better to try to develop, even though that means taking risks. Because I have another job that provides the larger part of my income, I’m lucky enough to be able to go with my instinct as to what is right, rather than simply take the line of least resistance.

I spent some of the intervening time looking at how the city was changing - more about this in a future post. The more I thought about it, the contrast between the city's past, present and future seemed fascinating. I found myself realising that I'd never spent enough time exploring places that were right on my doorstep. Some of the key scenes in the book are set in the city centre, very close to where I have worked since 1980. But it was only when researching the novel that I explored Tower Building - across the road from my office and boasting a remarkable history; see the lower photo - and St Nicholas's Church, set in a tiny oasis in between large office buildings and hotel; see the upper photo. I was given a guided tour of Tower Building, and this helped enormously in creating a fictional new home for Harry Devlin.

Returning to the Devlin series after a long break, although risky, has resulted in a book I’m very happy with. Okay, I’m not entirely objective, but I do feel confident it’s the best Devlin so far. And also my fastest-paced book to date. The early reviews in the US have been very encouraging. There’s also been a nice feature article in the Liverpool Daily Post. I'm not sure if this link will work, but here goes:


Friday, 18 April 2008

Return to Wallasey

Last week I had a specially enjoyable evening. It involved going back to one of my old stamping grounds. In the 1980s I lived on the Wirral peninsula, in Moreton on the outskirts of Wallasey. That was where I started writing the first Harry Devlin novel, All the Lonely People.

I remember vividly wondering, during the mid 80s, whether I would ever be able to fulfil my ambition of having a crime novel published. I joined the writers’ group based at Bebington library, and that was where I first read a few extracts from the early chapters of the book. I enjoyed the group and I'm a strong believer in the value of both writers' and readers' groups. But I didn’t achieve publication as a novelist until some years after I’d moved back to Cheshire.

So it was quite a nostalgic trip to return to Wallasey for an evening performance of ‘Who Killed George Hargrave?’ It was held in the Central Library, a Carnegie library fast approaching its centenary. Diane Moore and her colleagues (including Rachel Southworth, who took these photos) did a good job of hosting an event which proved to be a sell-out. Even the mayor and mayoress turned up and took part in the audience's attempts to solve the mystery.

Wirral is home to a number of good writers. In the crime field they include Margaret Murphy, founder of Murder Squad, and a leading light these days in the Crime Writers’ Association, and Eileen Dewhurst, whose work will be the subject of a future post.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Reduction writing

An interesting observation in Janet Evanovich’s book about how she writes is her assertion that: ‘I strongly believe in reduction writing. It’s like reduction in cooking.’ At first this left me baffled, given that I’m hopeless at cooking and I’ve never heard of reduction in cooking. But she went on to explain: ‘When you make gravy, you take a big pot of ingredients – meat, spices – and you boil it down to a little pot of stuff, which is the essence.’ And she added: ‘If you use that principle in writing, you’re getting two terrific sentences rather than four long, tedious paragraphs.’

This is pretty useful advice, I think. Evanovich says, ‘Whilst my writing may give the impression of simple and effortless, it actually takes me hours to get it to appear that way.’ Entirely believable; I’m sure the same was true of the smoothly accomplished Michael Gilbert, about whom I’ve posted several times lately.

Writers who favour reduction writing may do their utmost to reduce their work as they go along. Or they may leave much of the work until after they have completed the first draft. I tend to be in the latter group. I’m a great believer in revision .You really wouldn’t want to read my first drafts! But the process of working away at a manuscript is really one of continuous improvement.

This is why, when talking to beginning writers, I encourage them just to get words down on paper (or on screen.) Once the words are written, they can always be improved, reduced, whatever. With writing, if not with politics, things can only get better.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Man and Murder

As I mentioned in relation to Kate Stacey, a crime fiction convention offers the chance to meet new people and discover unfamiliar books. I’m looking forward to Crimefest in Bristol, which takes place in early June. I’m moderating one panel and participating in another and it should be an enjoyable event.

One of the members of the panel I’m involved with is Chris Ewan, someone I haven’t met. Chris turns out to be a lawyer, involved in the no doubt glamorous world of film work, and based in the Isle of Man. I look forward to getting to know him.

In the meantime, he’s been kind enough to send me a copy of his first novel, pleasingly titled The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam. This book started life as Long Barn First Novel competition winner and the premise sounds intriguing. Charlie Howard travels the globe writing suspense novels about an intrepid burglar named Faulks. To supplement his income – and to keep his hand in – Charlie also has a small side business stealing for a very discreet clientele on commission.

I’ll have to read it to find out if the book has any scenes set in the Isle of Man. Opinions vary about the island, which can be a bit windy, but I like it a lot. It hasn’t featured often in crime fiction – but the late George Bellairs (the pseudonym of a Mancunian banker) wrote quite a number of books set there. His archives were donated to the John Rylands Library in Manchester and give a picture of the life of a mid-list crime writer in the 1950s. I first learned of the archives from an article by Dick Stewart in CADS some years ago, and this prompted me to look them up. Quite fascinating.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Arsenic labyrinths: fiction and reality

The Arsenic Labyrinth is set mainly in the Coppermines Valley at Coniston in the Lake District, a fascinating and rather bleak spot, a long way (though not as the crow flies) from the pastoral settings associated with Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, William Wordsworth et al.

However, in truth there never was an arsenic labyrinth, or any associated arsenic works, at Coniston. I invented the labyrinth that features in my novel – although arsenic was produced in Cumbria in days gone by. The best-preserved arsenic labyrinth in Britain is at Botallack in Cornwall. It inspired Bren Unwin to produce the prints I have talked about before on this blog.

But here’s another confession. Although, when writing the book, I researched arsenic labyrinths quite extensively, and had a lot of help from an archaeologist who has been involved with the Botallack project, and who advised me on how to invent something for Coniston that was rather different, yet genuinely credible, I have never actually explored one for myself. I last visited Botallack, and saw its tin mines, about thirty years ago, at a time when the importance of its industrial heritage was not fully appreciated. Thankfully, times have changed.

Until I make the journey back to Cornwall, which I hope to do next year, I am happy to make do with these photographs which Bren has kindly sent me. She took them last week and I think they convey the beauty of the setting as well as the appeal of the stone remains themselves.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Short thoughts

I was glad when Maxim Jakubowski, owner of Murder One bookstore, author, critic, blogger and prolific anthologist, included ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ in Best British Mysteries (or The Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries as it is known in the US.) For me, it’s a real.pleasure to appear in print alongside such luminaries as Colin Dexter, Mark Billingham, Lee Child, Len Deighton, Val McDermid, John Harvey and Simon Kernick.

In total, there are 37 short stories in the book, which makes it pretty good value at £7.99 (or $13.95.) This year the series has seen a change of publisher; in the UK, the book now appears under the Robinson imprint, as a chunky paperback original, with no hardback version as in the past.

In his introduction, the editor explains: ‘The principle is the same every year: read virtually all the crime and mystery stories published in a variety of sources, some predictable, others much less so, and I select the best…The idea is to present here the whole breadth of what is being written in the mystery field today…’

This is the fourth time I’ve had a story in the Best British Mysteries series: the earlier ones were ’24 Hours from Tulsa’ (yes, a favourite song!), ‘The House of the Red Candle’ (Dickens and Wilkie Collins investigate a locked brothel mystery) and ‘Test Drive’ (which was short-listed for a CWA Dagger.)

I haven’t written many short stories lately, but the reprinting of ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ has coincided with a couple of ideas for stories springing to mind. The real challenge, as ever is not finding the ideas, but finding the time to write them up….

Meanwhile, I'll be posting soon about the new CWA anthology that I have edited - M.O.: crimes of method.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The Canary Thief

The greatest pleasure of attending crime fiction conventions and conferences is to meet readers and fellow writers, and to make new friends. At last year’s annual CWA conference in Ilkley, I met for the first time a writer called Kate Stacey, whose one and only novel was published a few years back. Kate’s day job is a bookseller, and other commitments have kept her from producing a follow-up, but she explained she was hoping to get back into the swing of crime writing and her participation in the Ilkley weekend was a step in that direction.

Kate told me a little about her book, The Canary Thief, which was published by the company that also published my own early books, Piatkus (so I know they have very good taste!) After the conference, we swapped books and I certainly found hers interesting.

The Canary Thief was marketed as a ‘pitch black crime novel’ and it’s a quirky piece of writing. The lead characters are a police officer and a young boy and the story-line does not follow a conventional path. The book wasn’t a best-seller, but it showed enough promise to make the absence of a successor a real disappointment. I was glad to hear recently that, after a break to concentrate on other things, she’s back at work on a second book, and that she’s also been busy with some scripts for radio and television.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that the second Stacey will turn up in the stores in the next year or so. Chances are, it will be well worth the long wait.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

How Janet Evanovich Writes

The first curious thing about How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author, is that the cover of the book proclaims that it is written by Janet Evanovich ‘with Ina Yalof’. Surely she’s not implying that the secret is to find an unknown collaborator? The second oddity is that we are then told at the outset that there is actually a third author, Evanovich’s daughter Alex (but ‘for design purposes Alex’s name isn’t on the cover. Bad enough we had to fit Evanovich on once, let alone twice!’)

I felt this was all rather baffling, but once I’d overcome that initial reservation, I began to find this quite a fun book to dip into. As one would expect with Janet Evanovich, the style is warm, easy and accessible – she uses a Q&A format and right from the start places stress on the need for strong characters. She reckons that ‘all writers are people-watchers’ and rejects all that talk about characters ‘taking over’ from the writer: ‘Writers control the story and the characters.’

Some of the advice is pretty basic and generalised, but Evanovich does make many sound points. Unsurprisingly, another key message is ‘show, don’t tell’ and that ‘a plot requires a goal to pull the story forward.’ She also makes the very good point that book sales depend upon the publisher. However much self-promotion one attempts, if the books aren’t in the stores, nobody will buy them. This is one of the great sobering truths of being a published writer. I guess.

She offers copious examples from her own work of how she applies her principles in practice. The extracts encouraged me (no doubt the intention) to have another look at her Stephanie Plum books, which I haven’t kept up with in recent years. Inevitably, the focus on Evanovich’s own work limits the usefulness of this book for people who want to write different types of crime fiction, especially, if they have already read one or two ‘how-to’ guides. Even so, it’s a lively addition to the bookshelves and I found it entertaining.

Friday, 11 April 2008

The Red Hot Typewriter

The Red Hot Typewriter is the rather good title of a book published eight years ago by Hugh Merrill, an American journalist. It’s a study of the life and times of John D. Macdonald, of whom we are told: ‘He was a crime writer who managed to break free of the genre and finally get serious consideration from critics. Seventy of his novels and more than five hundred of his short stories were published in his lifetime. When he died in 1986, more than seventy million copies of his books have been sold.’

These are very impressive figures. Yet – call myself a crime fiction fan? – this is where I have to confess that I have never read anything by John D. Macdonald. Ross Macdonald, yes, Philip Macdonald, certainly. But so far the work of the creator of salvage expert Travis McGee has eluded me. Or more accurately, I’ve never got round to giving it a try.

One of the points made in the blurb of Merrill’s book is that JDM was one of the first writers whose passionate environmentalism was woven into his mysteries. Even if the mysteries themselves were nothing special, this alone would make his work worth considering. But my impression is that JDM was also a pretty good entertainer too. Seventy million people can’t be wrong, can they? (Well, I know there is debate about the merits of certain best-sellers, but even so…)

Coincidentally, I’ve also picked up another book about JDM – this time by David Geherin – which again emphasises the author’s views on the way mankind threatens the natural world. He suggests that JDM was something of a polemicist, and I tend to think that using your books as a vehicle for expressing your opinions is tricky territory, unless you remember at all times that your first duty as a writer of commercial fiction is to please the reader. All the same, I’m keen to give Macdonald a try. It’s obviously long overdue.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Marple, Cheshire

A recent article in ‘Cheshire Life’ asked: was Miss Marple born in Marple, Cheshire? It’s a good question. Agatha Christie was a regular visitor to Cheshire from an early age, since her sister had married the squire of Abney Hall, near Cheadle and the young Agatha would probably be very familiar with Marple station, en route for her destination.

Certainly, when I gave a talk to a group of readers in Marple a few years ago, there was a strong body of opinion that the great detective took her name from their home town. You’d expect nothing less, but I suspect they were right. I’m not quite as convinced, however, by suggestions that in 1926, during her eleven ‘missing days’, Agatha spent some time at Abney Hall.

The article also referred to a mystery surrounding the Margaret Rutherford film Murder at the Gallop, based on After the Funeral (which actually featured Poirot, rather than Marple.) It’s said that the book was written at Abney Hall. Apparently, it’s suggested on various film buffs’ websites that the world film premiere was staged at a ‘rural church garden party in Cheshire’.

In fact, any such film buffs are mistaken. The world film premiere was actually of Murder Most Foul , based on Mrs McGinty's Dead, and it took place at a village fete at Sandicroft, Great Budworth, near Northwich, in 1964. I say this with some confidence, because I was there – it was a ninth birthday treat - and the whole amazing event is still vivid in my memory to this day. That was the occasion that set me on my path to becoming a crime writer. For that night, so much did I enjoy the murder mystery, I atarted reading my first adult fiction - an Agatha Christie.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

'The Bookbinder's Apprentice'

The re-publication of ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ in Maxim Jakubowski’s latest Best British Mysteries prompts me to tell of how the story came to be written.

It happened like this. Venice is one of my favourite places in the world and my wife feels the same about it. We first visited it on our honeymoon and returned a few years ago. It was wonderful to soak up the atmosphere of those narrow alley-ways. It’s a very beautiful city, of course, but also rather spooky – as anyone who has seen that brilliant film Don’t Look Now will surely agree.

On a walk near San Marco, I paused to look into a rather gloomy shop window. It was a bookbinder’s shop and I found it fascinating. My imagination went into overdrive and by the time, two or three minutes later, that the long-suffering Mrs Edwards dragged me away, the idea for a story had formed in my mind. I began writing later that day, in a quiet square where the first scene in ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ is set.

Andrew Gulli, editor of Strand Magazine, had asked me for a pastiche Sherlock Holmes story, but I persuaded him to take a look at my contemporary tale of psychological suspense. He liked it and published it. It’s a story I’m quite proud of and I’m glad it’s having a new lease of life on this side of the Atlantic as well as in the States.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Overseas editions

Maxim Jakubowski has kindly presented me with both the British and American editions of his latest Best British Mysteries anthology, in which my story ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ appears.

I appreciate receiving both editions, because I like to have a copy of every edition of my publications – yet sometimes it’s surprisingly difficult to track down all the different editions of one’s books (or anthologies in which one’s stories appear.)

Two rather odd stories illustrate the point. One day, a few years back, I was browsing through an American bookseller’s catalogue. To my amazement I saw that one of the books for sale was a 3-in-1 omnibus, featuring my novel Eve of Destruction, and two books by other authors. Nobody had ever told me this edition existed. It turned out that the (very respectable) American publishers, who had published Eve of Destruction some time earlier, had sold the rights to the omnibus publisher - as they were entitled to do - but hadn’t bothered to tell me. The omnibus publisher had gone out of business (I hope not because of Eve of Destruction) and I couldn’t obtain a copy of the omnibus edition from them. So in the end, I bought the book from the bookseller.

Not long afterwards, I wrote a true crime book for a packager. Packagers produce illustrated books, mainly for the US market. Any other sales are a bonus. This book was a large glossy paperback called Urge to Kill, and an Australian edition soon appeared, identical except that it was called Motive to Murder. One day, shopping in Liverpool, I wandered into W.H.Smith. I saw a true crime hardback called Catching Killers. In my innocence, I thought it looked interesting, so I had a look at it. I soon realised I was reading an edition of my own book that I never knew existed. A weird feeliing. On this occasion, though, the publishers were still very much in existence, and they did supply a copy when asked to do so.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Dalziel and Pascoe are back

Reginald Hill’s excellent and highly original collection of stories There are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union has just been reprinted in paperback. The title dates it - in fact, I read it not long before I met Reg for the first time, at a Crime Writers’ Association get-together, around twenty years ago. This was, of course, long before the enormously successful BBC television series featuring Dalziel and Pascoe – in fact, it was long before the much less successful and thankfully short-lived Yorkshire TV version of the characters hit the screen, featuring the highly unlikely casting of Hale and Pace as the two detectives. Reg and his wife Pat have become friends in the intervening years and I owe him a lot, not only for so much reading pleasure, but also for the encouragement and help he’s given to me in my writing career.

It’s a special pleasure to report, therefore, that a brand new Dalziel and Pascoe novel has just hit the shelves: A Cure for all Diseases. It’s another hefty volume – well over 500 pages – so it will require time to be set aside. As a review of his last novel noted, his books ‘demand intense concentration’; they are densely written and complex, but the reviewer also noted that they are worth that investment of concentration.

Because Reg Hill has been so prolific over the years, it’s not easy to pick out a favourite novel of his. I much enjoyed The Only Game, which he originally published under the pen-name Patrick Ruell. I am a huge fan of Bones and Silence and On Beulah Height, but under pressure to make a choice, I’d plump for Dialogues of the Dead as the best of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. It’s wonderfully witty, and also very clever. For all the jokes that stud his work, Hill is a fiercely intelligent writer who has helped to raise the standards of detective fiction for upwards of thirty years.

He’s also a fine short story writer, and the newly reprinted paperback is a reminder of this. As far as stories not in this collection are concerned, ‘The Rio de Janeiro Paper’ is brilliant, as are ‘On the Psychiatrist’s Couch’ and ‘The Game of Dog’. I’m proud that the latter stories were written especially for anthologies that I edited. To read the manuscripts was not just enjoyable, but genuinely exciting.

Sunday, 6 April 2008


When I talked about the comparison made by Sally Hinchcliffe’s publishers with the work of Nicci French and Barbara Vine, it led me to thinking about comparisons often made by reviewers of crime fiction. They are usually meant to be signposts to readers – along the lines of ‘if you like X, you’ll love Y’. But sometimes they can be a substitute for proper assessment of an author on his or her own merits – anyone who writes about horses is almost certain to be compared to Dick Francis, but that isn’t necessarily helpful to anyone. Sometimes the comparisons can be highly gratifyng, but sometimes a little misleading. And, sometimes, quite bizarre.

To illustrate my point, here are just a few of the crime novelists with whom (believe it or not) I’ve been compared by reviewers:

Colin Dexter
John Grisham
Ian Rankin
Deborah Crombie
Elizabeth George
Early P.D. James
Raymond Chandler
Peter Robinson

Goodness, a very mixed bag! The one thing they have in common is that they have all sold many more books than me. As far as I'm concerned, all positive reviews are welcome and comparisons with writers who are much more successful are, of course, flattering - even though I recognise that, ultimately, an author has to be judged on his or her own merits. All that said, I must confess the comparisons with Chandler and Grisham left me utterly baffled, simply because I didn’t see any significant similarities between my work and theirs. Anyone reading my books with a legal setting and hoping for a Grisham-style blockbusting thriller is bound to be disappointed. He and I are aiming to do quite different things.

But of course, some of the other comparisons, whether over-generous or not, pleased me a good deal...

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Out of a Clear Sky

I’ve recently finished reading an advance proof of Out of a Clear Sky by a new writer, Sally Hinchcliffe. It focuses on the world of bird-watchers. Manda, the narrator, has recently split up with her boyfriend Gareth, and finds solace in the hobby (more of an obsession, actually) that the two of them shared. Tom, a friend, is interested in her, and so – rather less pleasingly – is a rather creepy individual called David. Manda finds herself menaced by a sinister enemy, and as the pressure on her mounts towards a fatal conclusion (foreshadowed in part by the first chapter), secrets from her own past become increasingly oppressive.

This is a well-written book by a novelist of genuine promise. My guess is that we will hear a great deal more of Sally Hinchcliffe. Where her inexperience as a crime writer shows, perhaps, is in the balance between the incidents of the story and the background of the bird-watchers’ world. There are many, many pages about birds, and although the material is fascinating, at times (for me, at least) it overwhelmed the story. It did make the book ‘different’, and that is a real strength, but the plot twists were generally rather predictable.

The publishers claim that Hinchcliffe ‘will be a star of the future’. On this evidence, I’d say there is a good chance of their being right. Where I part company with the blurb is in the comparison with Nicci French and Barbara Vine. French and Vine both excel at plot, as well as characterisation and description, and that is the secret of their enormous success. The comparison doesn’t do Hinchcliffe any favours. She’s talented enough to be judged on her own merits, which are distinctive and considerable.

Friday, 4 April 2008

The Bride Wore Black

Cornell Woolrich is one of my favourite American crime writers. I first discovered him in the 1980s, when a series of reprints of his classic ‘emotional thrillers’ appeared in the UK and I devoured them with much enthusiasm.

A few years later, I was asked to write an introduction to one of the best of them, The Bride Wore Black. For those who have not come across this pacy suspense novel (which was turned into a well-regarded film by Truffaut), it may be worth recapping my thoughts:

‘From the very first paragraph, we are left in no doubt about the determination of the woman who gives the book its paradoxical title. Not even ‘the strongest claim that human lips can utter’ makes her lose a step. It soon becomes plain that there is an air of mystery and menace about her. She tells a childhood friend that they will never meet again; she regards herself as ‘gone beyond recall’…From her window, she looks out at the city, and seems to lean towards it, ‘like something imminent, about to happen to it.’

‘…not once thereafter does Woolrich let the tension flag. His is a tale of a serial killer with a difference, a woman with a thirst for revenge. The bleak mood is reinforced by the carefully chosen epigraphs; here, even the lyrics of popular romantic songs…seem as chilling as the quotations from Guy de Maupassant.’

Woolrich was such a visual writer that it’s no surprise that his stories have often been filmed. Possibly the most famous is Rear Window, and Phantom Lady is also very good. There is a great deal more that I could say about him, but much of it has already been said by Francis M. Nevins, whose biography of this troubled soul, First You Dream and Then You Die , is definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Return to the Beacon

Returning to work after a holiday, however short, always requires a bit of an effort of will. On Monday I had the added challenge of needing to be in the centre of Liverpool before 6.45 a.m. for a radio interview about the forthcoming publication of Waterloo Sunset. Now, anyone who knows me will know that I am not at my best in the early morning (I’m not entirely sure when I am at my best, actually, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m at my very worst in the early morning.) Setting off on the motorway at the unfamiliar time of a quarter to six, I did at least find that a normally horrendous commute became straightforward due to the lightness of the traffic. And I arrived to find the sun coming out in Liverpool.

The interview was at Radio City. They now occupy the Beacon, in the heart of the city centre. When I first landed in Liverpool, in 1980, the Beacon was home to a revolving restaurant, and one memorable evening I was taken to dinner there by a client. Alas, the revolving restaurant is long gone – I’d like to find another one somewhere, sometime, but they seem to be in short supply. However, the views from the Beacon across the city and beyond the river remain utterly breathtaking.

The interviewers were Phil and Kim and they were very accomplished. It is common to do an interview of this kind and find that the interviewer is badly briefed. It’s relatively rare to find that the interviewer has read the book all the way through. But Phil had just finished Waterloo Sunset over the weekend, and gave it terrific coverage. The duo’s professionalism made it easy to answer their questions in a more or less coherent way, even if I shall remain very much an owl rather than a lark.

Walking back through rather quiet streets, it felt as though spring might finally have arrived. The dramatic new buildings in the heart of Liverpool are taking shape. The reborn city felt fresh, and full of promise for the future.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Gormley Effect

Until last weekend, my only glimpse of Antony Gormley’s famous sculpture The Angel of the North had been while driving past on the A1. The setting, in between two busy roads, struck me as rather eccentric, but – as I hope the photographs demonstrate - it made more sense to me when I was finally able to park close by and walk right up to it.

Gormley’s work strikes me as really powerful. Not just in its size and scale – apparently the Angel’s wingspan is only a little less than that of a jumbo jet – but also in the mood it creates. Its starkness and simplicity are deeply impressive.

His Iron Men (aka ‘Another Place’) on the waterfront running from Waterloo to Crosby in Merseyside are equally dramatic. They feature in key scenes in Waterloo Sunset, and make a vivid impression on Harry Devlin, both half-way through the book and right at the end. I hope I have at least been able to capture in fiction the impact that the figures make on the character, and I’d like to think that the images will continue to resonate with some readers for quite a while after they have finished the novel.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

The Lit and Phil

Last Saturday I had the privilege of staging the Victorian mystery event at a venue I found utterly entrancing. I’d heard about the Lit and Phil in Newcastle from writer friends in the North East – Peter and Margaret Lewis, Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves and Chaz Brenchley are all fans of the place, and no wonder.

The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, to give its full title, is home to the largest independent English library outside London, along with a massive music collection. It occupies a Grade II listed building and has magnificently ornate reading rooms. In some respects it reminds me of the Liverpool Athenaeum, but there are various differences – not least in the fact that the Lit and Phil operates as a full-scale lending library. It’s a historic institution and past speakers include Dorothy L. Sayers and F.R. Leavis.

As for the stock of books, it’s amazing. Even on a quick look round, I could see that it includes many crime novels that are no longer available in conventional public libraries. I could happily spend many hours there. Probably weeks. Possibly months.

With such a special setting, a full house, and a team of highly accomplished local actors to perform the parts in the mystery, it was bound to be a memorable afternoon, and so it proved. Kay Easson and her team did a great job in organising everything smoothly. It went so well that even a horrendous journey home on the motorway network through three hours of driving rain and wind couldn’t blow away the pleasure of the occasion. One thing’s for sure. Some day I’d love to go back to the Lit and Phil.