Thursday, 31 July 2008

Bleeding Heart Square

Andrew Taylor is one of my favourite contemporary writers, now enjoying the commercial success his considerable literary gifts have so long deserved. Much of his best work is set in the past, and his latest, set in 1934, shows us a novelist at the height of his powers. The title – and it’s a great title, I think – is taken from the name of a square in central London. (I would have been glad of a map, but then I have a definite weakness for maps in books.) The atmosphere is faintly reminiscent of that in some of the novels of Patrick Hamilton (a fascinating writer whom I’ll discuss in a future post) but the style and plotting is very much Taylor’s own.

Lydia Cassington flees to no. 7 Bleeding Heart Square, to stay with her long-estranged father, after her marriage to a rich brute becomes intolerable. Her father’s landlord is the enigmatic Joseph Serridge. Serridge’s house is being watched by a mysterious individual called Narton, and he is being sent parcels containing rotting hearts. Soon. Rory Wentwood visits the house. Four years earlier, the rich aunt of his girlfriend Fenella vanished without trace, and Rory suspects that Serridge (with whom the aunt was besotted) was responsible for her disappearance.

This is a complex book, and a compelling read. The period detail is splendidly done, and the final twist is quite brilliant; I freely confess that I failed to see it coming. Taylor is not trying to write a thriller here, and the pace of the narrative is steady, rather than electrifying. In the second half of the book, the story slows a little, and there is perhaps more detail about the activities of the British Union of Fascists than is strictly necessary for the purposes of the plot.

I did find the political material intriguing, though. Not once, but twice, Fascists use phrases strongly reminiscent of ‘British jobs for British workers’, a phrase of which our present Prime Minister is fond. And I even wondered if, in his scornful depiction of authoritarian bullies who are happy to trample on the civil liberties of those who oppose them, Andrew Taylor was hinting at a parallel with some of the more dubious policies and attitudes of our present government. Maybe, maybe not. But it’s one more layer of interest in a book that is rich in texture.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Between the Lines

One of the drawbacks of writing in the evenings is that I miss some good television shows. (A corresponding upside is that I miss an awful lot of rubbish.) As a result, I came far too late to ‘Between the Lines’, which was originally screened from 1992-1994, and which earned a great deal of acclaim. So it was good to catch up on the second episode of the first series, and to get an idea of what the fuss was about.

‘Out of the Game’ was written by Russell Lewis – an experienced tv writer who, as it happens, was once touted as a potential scriptwriter for the Harry Devlin series that never made it to, or even close to, the small screen. The star was the charismatic Neil Pearson as Superintendent Tony Clark, assigned to investigate police complaints, and often biting off more than he can chew.

This episode featured the shooting by police officers of a man with learning difficulties who was in possession of a replica gun on a tough London housing estate. Clark suspects that the local police may have something to hide, but eventually uncovers a very different form of conspiracy – only to find that the authorities are not really interested in ensuring that justice is done, as long as the good guys are protected.

I enjoyed the show and felt it stood the test of time relatively well. Pearson was very effectivelyl supported by Tom Georgeson, the gorgeous Siobhan Redmond, Tony Doyle and – cleverly cast as a blunt senior officer – the excellent Pete Postlethwaite. The temptation to buy the complete DVDs of the three series is strong – trouble is, I’m not sure I’d ever get round to watching them all.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Photo album

My aim (not always achieved, but I do my utmost) is to update this blog daily and my website weekly.

The website contains a great deal of material, and I keep adding to it. There are plenty of articles about the crime genre, as well as an illustrated section about 'Collecting Crime Fiction' which highlights a number of my favourite things.

On the events page, there are links to two photo albums. The pictures taken at various Victorian Murder Mystery events of mine will, I hope, interest librarians and others who are thinking of staging such an event.

The general photo album has just been updated this last weekend. It now includes pictures from my book launch, as well as from the CWA Daggers Dinner. One shot - taken by Ali Karim - I treasure in particular. It shows Frankie Fyfield and me, both in can't-quite-believe-it mood after receiving our awards.

Monday, 28 July 2008

My next book

I’m thrilled to say that a project that has meant a great deal to me is now close to fruition. Around October (the precise date is yet to be finalised) my next novel is due to come out. It’s called Dancing for the Hangman and it is very different from all my other novels.

Dancing for the Hangman is a crime story, yes, but with a difference. It’s the story of the life (and death) of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen. The Crippen case has fascinated me for a decade or so – Nic Gabriel, the protagonist of my earlier stand-alone suspense novel, himself wrote a non-fiction book about it. I decided to go one better, and write a work of fiction which nevertheless (and this is the crucial point, and the reason why I believed it to be a worthwhile enterprise) sought to respect all the known facts.

It’s a story with a sort of twist in the tail, and in some crucial respects it offers a fresh interpretation of the case. But it’s not a ‘whodunit’ in the same way as the Harry Devlin series and the Lake District Mysteries are whodunits. It’s not a book which fits easily into an obvious pigeon-hole – in some ways, it belongs to the mainstream fiction as much as genre. But I deliberately set out to write a book that didn’t fit into an obvious category. I'm proud of the end result and I hope that, even though it is different, readers will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Severed

Simon Kernick has quickly established himself as a very popular writer of fast-moving thrillers, with cliff-hangers aplenty. I read Relentless a while back, and I finished Severed just before setting off for Harrogate.

The opening scene is memorable. Tyler wakes up in a strange bed, covered in blood. Lying next to him is the naked body of a young woman – his girlfriend, Leah. Her head is missing. And soon Tyler finds himself playing a DVD which appears to show him killing Leah.

From that beginning, the pace really never lets up. There is twist after twist, and plenty more violence to accompany the excitement. All the action is compressed into a short timescale and the agony is piled on poor old Tyler, page after page.

I did wonder if Simon Kernick had in any way been influenced by Francis Durbridge’s thrillers. However, he’s too young to have watched classic cliff-hangers like Bat out of Hell and A Game of Murder, which were screened in the sixties, and he told me at Harrogate that he wasn’t familiar with Durbridge’s work. Yet, although Kernick is a very modern writer in many ways, and it wouldn’t be right to push the parallel too far, it does seem to me that those who like Durbridge’s pacy stories may well also like Kernick’s. And vice versa.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Aline Templeton


The nature of crime fiction conventions is that one meets a great many people, often in a bit of a rush. It’s good, every now and then, to escape for a little while, to have a rather longer chat with someone and start getting to know them better.

Last Saturday at Harrogate was an example; I had lunch with the Scottish writer Aline Templeton, and the conversation ranged widely from Scottish nationalism, through the vagaries of the publishing business, to the Detection Club, of which Aline has been a member for several years.

Aline’s current series detective is DI Marjory Fleming, who features in Lying Dead, a novel I acquired before the festival was over. I’ve read the first few pages and it begins very promisingly. And Aline has kindly let me have a copy of her latest, Lamb to the Slaughter; something else to look forward to.

There was, however, almost a horrific end to our lunch. We’d decided to sit out in the all-too-rare sunshine. But the weather deteriorated and, out of the blue, a fierce gust of wind somehow blew over a huge umbrella on a metal pole, which came crashing down inches from Aline. I’m happy to report she was not only unharmed, but completely unfazed. Of course, at once the conversation turned to unusual methods of murder….

Friday, 25 July 2008

Thomas H. Cook and Jill Paton Walsh

I admire a good many crime writers, past and present, and in the last few years I’ve developed a particular enthusiasm for the work of Thomas H. Cook. I’ve read some but by no means all of his novels, and Red Leaves is among my all-time favourites. Breakheart Hill is also brilliant.

So it was a great pleasure finally to meet the man himself at Harrogate. The subtly melancholic tone of his writing had made me wonder what he might be like in person; suffice to say that I found that he is both affable and charming. Because I am a fan as well as a crime writer - and I shall always be a fan, and in awe of great writers - I was especially delighted by Tom Cook's very kind personal inscription on my copy of one of his earlier books, Sacrificial Ground.

I also had the chance of a conversation with Jill Paton Walsh, once short-listed for the Booker Prize, and the author of the Imogen Quy novels. She pointed out to me (what I’d failed to realise) that her heroine’s initials were a jokey hint at the intellectual aspirations of the fictional detective. In the mystery field, Jill is best known for finishing Dorothy L. Sayers’ Thrones, Dominations. She’s written another ‘new’ Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and a third is in the works. Something to look forward to.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Readers' Dinner

One of the highlights of the Harrogate Festival for me was Saturday evening’s Readers’ Dinner. This was a chance for writers and readers to get together, but I didn’t know quite what to expect.

The dinner was sponsored by Mira Books, who have developed a very interesting specialism in fast-moving thrillers. I’d never heard of them until a couple of years ago, when Paul Johnston, who was once a fellow Hodder author, told me they had taken him on. Ever since, Paul has sung their praises, and he’s someone whose opinions command a great deal of respect. Their list is growing rapidly and impressively.

One of the Mira authors, E.V. Seymour and I were on the same table and we enjoyed the company of a diverse range of people. They included a group of Dutch publishers and some very charming Americans – who had arrived in Harrogate after a few days spent in the Lakes checking out the real locations behind some of the fictional scenes in my Lake District Mysteries. Although they hadn’t managed to find a ‘cipher garden’, I told them about Mellor’s Garden, the unique and fascinating Cheshire garden which contains symbols tracing the story of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and which gave me the inspiration for the book.

Eve Seymour, it turns out, is the author of The Last Exile, which is due to be published any time now. It features intelligence officer Paul Tallis and I look forward to reading it.

All in all, the dinner seemed to me to be a great success. I certainly enjoyed it.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

'My Ship is Coming In'




On Monday, a lunch with clients in the Albert Dock coincided with two unusual things – a sunny day, and the start of the Tall Ships race. About one million people are said to have visited Liverpool to see the Tall Ships over a period of four days, and the crowds were such that I had to be issued with a permit to be sure of getting in to my office by car.

The Parade of Sail was a truly impressive sight, a reminder of the city’s maritime hey-day, as well as a suitable tribute to its renaissance during this ‘capital of culture year’. People crowded the walkways beside the new Arena to get a view; I even saw people on the top of the Merseyside Police HQ building, looking out towards the Mersey. Such was the party atmosphere that, making my way back to work, I spotted a pony and trap on the Strand, taking tourists to a vantage point. Typical Liverpool: the bloke with the reins was chatting into his mobile as he negotiated the road works.

The Tall Ships have visited the city a few times before over the past quarter of a century. When I lived on Wirral in the 80s, I went to look at them and the memory inspired the background to a Harry Devlin short story. It was called ‘My Ship is Coming In’ (after the Walker Brothers song) and appeared in ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’, as well as the 1995 Bouchercon book No Alibi.


Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Death and deck chairs




One of the many fascinating encounters I had at Harrogate was with Tony Davis, a designer who was displaying, in the foyer of the Crown Hotel, a variety of attractive, and sometimes witty and ingenious products with crime themes.

Tony Davis talked interestingly about his approach to design, and the connectivity of things. But even interesting theories are only as good as the results they produce, and I really liked what I saw of them. He’s made effective use of James Bond and Agatha Christie imagery.

Coffee mugs are obvious products for such images, but others are much less obvious - for example, I admired his deckchairs. One of those on display depicted the jacket artwork for the first edition of Death on the Nile. Another in the catalogue is – yes! – Evil under the Sun. Tony hadn’t heard of Milward Kennedy’s obscure Golden Age novel Death in a Deck Chair, the jacket artwork of which would again, I think, result in a wittily appropriate deck chair canvas. The real snag, of course, is finding weather this summer which is suitable for sitting out in a deck chair.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Crime at Harrogate


The latest Harrogate Crime Writing Festival was the best-attended yet, and for good reason. It runs from Thursday evening to Sunday, and it attracts an increasingly international audience. The Festival team and the staff at the Crown Hotel seem to work very well together. It must be quite a complex thing to organise, but I wasn’t aware of any glitches.

Apart from the pleasure of meeting old friends, I enjoyed a variety of events and meeting some very agreeable people for the first time. In future blog posts, I’ll cover some authors who were present on an individual basis.

The panels included a number of highlights, including the ever-entertaining Peter Lovesey explaining why he is a technophobe, and reciting a funny poem about the importance of autopsy scenes in modern crime fiction. On a panel that focused on criminal justice, Frances Fyfield was eloquent and very perceptive.

It was good to catch up with Peter Robinson and his wife for the first time in three years or so – his publishers threw a party to celebrate 21 years of books about Alan Banks. I’ve been a fan of the series since it began and it’s great to see how successful it’s become. And then there was the quiz, presided over by Simon Kernick and Laura Wilson. I was invited to join a knowledgeable and friendly team, with bloggers Maxine, Karen and Rhian, along with fellow authors Meg Gardiner and Zoe Sharp. We didn’t win, but it was a lot of fun.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Friend of the Devil

I have mixed feelings about detective fiction audio books. They help ease the tedium of long-distance commuting, and that is a major plus. But there is always the risk that, in seeking to negotiate traffic, one may miss a plot twist or a crucial development in the narrative. Nevertheless, after a break from them, I’ve decided to listen to a few more audio books.

And where better to start than with a recent Peter Robinson story, Friend of the Devil? Robinson is a highly accessible writer, whose easy style is well suited to audio adaptation. An added bonus of this Hodder audio book is that the reader is Neil Pearson, a charismatic actor whose credits include ‘Between the Lines’.

The story is a good one, with a nice blend of complexity and characters. Two women are murdered on the same day; one is a pretty young girl, killed in an urban maze, the other is a woman who is confined to a wheelchair, who meets a shocking end. The investigations are led by Robinson’s main protagonists, Alan Banks and Annie Cabbot, and the threads are tied together neatly after about three hours’ listening.

The abridgement was carried out by Peter Mackie. I haven’t read the whole novel, so it’s not easy to judge the quality of the necessarily ruthless editing. I had the impression that one or two sections of the story were rather brutally truncated. But it may be that I missed something important as I dodged the HGVs on the Thelwall Viaduct.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Story springboards

Since I wrote about Richard Lupoff’s story collection Quintet, we have been in touch by email and I’ve learned quite a lot more about the varied and interesting career of a writer I’m happy to have encountered – even if only very belatedly.

Here’s a story Dick Lupoff told me about his writing, which I find rather appealing:

'When I come across a story springboard I have to decide which way to spring. Science fiction? Mystery? I guess it depends on my mood of the moment. Or maybe on what some editor has offered my shekels to create. Let me give you an example.
In this era of the ubiquitous cell phone, old-fashioned telephone booths are rapidly disappearing, but there’s still one in my neighborhood, on the corner near the Japanese restaurant and the local pharmacy. I happened to walk past it as a person in a shapeless coat and turned-down fedora completed a call. He hung up the phone, reached in his pocket, extracted a small, rectangular package, laid it on the shelf, and walked away.

Thinking he might have meant to take the package with him, I picked it up and started after him. And suddenly, I felt a chill. I started fantasizing about what might be in the package, and why the man had left it. Was he a spy? Did the package contain some secret data? Do spies still use microfilm, or was there an electronic memory stick in there? Was the man a jewel thief? Had he been paid off to arrange the return of some fabulously valuable gems, and were they in the package? If so, someone else was about to pick up the memory sticks – or the emeralds – and I had inadvertently plunged myself into a potentially fatal situation. I was about to find myself stuck in the middle of a gangster epic or a spy thriller.

Or was the man the earthly contact for aliens? Was he the agent of Earth’s pending conquest, a judas ram communicating with his monstrous masters? Maybe he was an alien himself, his frightening appendages and superscientific apparatus concealed beneath that coat, his nine eyes and magenta visage shaded by that hat-brim. Was he a time-traveler? Did the box contain a superdimensional transporter? Was I about to be whisked into the Ninety-Ninth Century, or perhaps taken to a weird planet in the Zorch Dimension?

Wherever my mood took me. Or the requirements of the marketplace. I’m not a science fiction writer or a mystery writer or a horror writer or a mainstream writer. I’m just a writer. I write what pleases me, or what an editor will pay me to write. On a good day, those two things coincide.

By the way, it turned out that the telephone-booth user was a member of another disappearing tribe, cigarette smokers. The mysterious package was an empty box that had previously contained his smokes. I didn’t bother to chase him. I tossed the package in the recycle bin and went home and started writing a Western.'

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Long Good Friday

My favourite British gangster film is The Long Good Friday. Naturally, the brilliant original version of Get Carter runs it close, but the 1979 movie starring Bob Hoskins as the ebullient London villain Harold Shand is unbeatable, at least to my mind. Everything about it seems right, a feeling that I found confirmed when I watched it again on a 2-DVD set that included not only a first rate ‘making of’ feature, but also a CD of the terrific, driving soundtrack by Francis Monkman, who has never done anything better.

One of the reasons why The Long Good Friday is so good is that, on first viewing, it is hard to fathom what is going on – yet, when you know the story, it is possible to watch the film several more times, in open-mouthed admiration at the skill with which the pieces are put together.

The original script by Barrie Keeffe was called ‘The Paddy Factor’, a title which unwisely hints at the key to the story. Director John Mackenzie was surely right to change the title. Helen Mirren is superb (as so often) as Harold’s sexy, classy moll, and the minor characters are equally well cast. Pierce Brosnan, in a small but important role, made an immediate and very chilling impact.

Yet the film really begins to Bob Hoskins. His one-liners are hugely enjoyable, but best of all is the final scene, when the camera focuses on his changing expressions as he comes to terms with what is going to happen to him. It’s a stunning piece of acting, and utterly memorable. If you haven’t watched this film before, I envy you. A great pleasure lies ahead.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Frances Fyfield

I’ve mentioned how pleased I was to see Frances Fyfield win the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel of the year. I’ve followed her career with interest right from the start. I first came across her name when I read a review of her debut novel, A Question of Guilt, by Julian Symons. Symons, ever the task-master, was slightly equivocal, but he recognised the distinctive quality of Frances’ writing and I bought and enjoyed the book when it came out in paperback.

Frances is, like me, a solicitor and she used to work for the Crown Prosecution Service, which gave her a wonderful insight into the processes of the criminal law, although she has never been a writer of conventional police procedurals. Her characters Helen West and Sarah Fortune both draw upon her knowledge of legal life. For some years, she reviewed crime fiction for The New Law Journal, and on two or three occasions she covered my early Harry Devlin novels with both generosity and genuine insight. She was one of the very first reviewers who really ‘got’ what I was trying to do with my novels.

Some time after that, we met for the first time, when I was asked to interview her for the Shots on the Page convention that ran in Nottingham in the mid-90s. She proved to be an excellent interviewee – even though she is undoubtedly a private person – and we have bumped into each other from time to time during the intervening years. She gave up lawyering some years ago, to focus on her writing, which has gone from strength to strength. Her books have been televised on several occasions and she has been short-listed for the Gold Dagger several times. Now, at last, she has won it, and I’m really pleased for her. Frances Fyfield, both under that name and her real name Frances Hegarty, is a writer of genuine distinction. Check out, for instance, The Playroom, as by Hegarty.

I’m heading off later this week to the Harrogate Crime Festival and I hope to see Frances again there. Whilst I’m away, I’ve scheduled a daily ration of reviews of books and films.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Dick Stewart

On my way home from a day spent working in Manchester, I called in at the home of someone I haven’t seen for years, Dick Stewart, or R.F.Stewart as he is named on the covers of his two excellent books, lives in south Manchester and for years I used to buy second hand books from his occasional catalogues. Sadly, he gave up bookselling because he was finding it impossible to lay his hands on enough interesting old crime novels, but he called me recently to say that he meant to part company with a few items from his own collection and to ask if I’d be interested in taking a look at them. Of course, the answer was yes, and I came away with a number of very interesting reference books to add to my groaning shelves.

Dick wrote a couple of splendid articles for CADS that live in my memory. One was about die-a-grams, the room plans etc that populate so many Golden Age novels. The other was about George Bellairs, the pseudonym under which a Manchester banker wrote competent mysteries (many of which benefited from an unusual setting in the Isle of Man), mainly in the 50s and 60s. The latter article prompted me, some years ago, to investigate the Bellairs archive held in Manchesrter’s John Rylands Library, and fascinating it was.

I have a couple of books written by Dick. And Always a Detective… is a study, slightly idiosyncratic but intelligent and very agreeable, of early detective stories. End Game describes all the many books written about Charles Dickens’ unfinished mystery novel concerning the fate of Edwin Drood Fans of Victorian fiction in particular will enjoy these books, but really, so will most crime non-fiction fans in search of something a little bit different.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Laura

Laura is one of those classic films that is worth watching more than once, and I’ve watched it again after a long gap. Directed by Otto Preminger, the movie came out in 1944, the year after publication of the novel on which it is based, written by Vera Caspary.

Caspary is not an author I know much about and Laura is the only book of hers I’ve ever read. She was a writer of suspense fiction, and never created a notable series detective, which may in part explain why her reputation has not lasted as well as that of the film based on her most successful novel.

The plot is gripping, but it is the obsessive fascination that the detective has for the (apparent) victim, the eponymous and lovely Laura, that gives the story much of its appeal. Preminger plays up the dream-like quality of the narrative with considerable skill, and this adds a good deal of depth. The haunting theme tune by David Raskin, constantly repeated throughout the film, also contributes to a memorable experience.

I looked up the main actors in Wikipedia and found that Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb, for all of whom this film was their finest achievement, seem to have had troubled personal lives (the fourth star, Vincent Price, went on to, at least arguably, greater things, appearing in countless gleeful Hammer movies as well as doing the voiceover for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.)

One aspect of Tierney’s tragic life story startled me. It’s said that Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side took as its key plot element the incident that caused the disability of Tierney’s child (I’m phrasing it cryptically so as not to spoil the story.) I don’t know whether Christie ever acknowledged this sad ‘inspiration’, but her novel has such a similar sequence of events that coincidence would be a very unlikely explanation.

Monday, 14 July 2008

221b Baker Street




On my way to Park Lane for the CWA Daggers Awards on Thursday evening, I stopped for a few minutes in Baker Street and made a quick pilgrimage - my first ever - to 221b, where Sherlock Holmes once lived with Dr Watson. There is a museum on the site, a visit to which will be a must on a future occasion when I have more time to spare. But I had a glance at the museum shop, which contains a miscellany of items of Holmes memorabilia.

The Holmes phenomenon is unique. No other detective, real or fictional, has ever inspired such devotion and sustained interest. Even on a rather drab day, the place was packed with tourists and I was fascinated see the range of local businesses which milked the Sherlockian theme – there is even a ‘dry cleaners to the Sherlock Holmes Museum’.

So: Wembley, 221b Baker Street and a wonderful night at the Daggers – last Thursday will certainly live long in my memory.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Wembley





During a break from a lengthy meeting on Thursday, I was shown around the new national football stadium at Wembley. This was quite a thrill, as Wembley has always been a Mecca for soccer fans. I grew up with the game, since my father lived and breathed it. In later life he became president of the local football club and wrote its history, a massive tome ten years in the making, which was published months before he died. He took me to the old Wembley stadium to watch the FA Cup final in 1969 – but new Wembley could hardly be more different from its majestic but antiquated predecessor. I was enormously impressed by the design and the facilities – truly state of the art.

But Wembley isn’t just about football – all sorts of events are staged there, including major events in other sports, and major concerts. The vision of Wembley is to be the greatest stadium in the world, and I’d be surprised if there are many sports or concert arenas that are remotely as impressive. I can strongly recommend the stadium tour.

Football features here and there in my fiction .There are various passing references to the game in the Harry Devlin books and in a short story called ‘Never Walk Alone’ he investigates a mystery associated with Liverpool Football Club; oddly, not long after I wrote the story, I started undertaking legal work for the club, but I don’t think it was a matter of cause and effect.

Influenced by my father’s diligent researches into the history of football grounds, I once wrote a story called ‘Penalty’ which explores a dark secret from the past of a football club that has fallen on hard times. I enjoyed writing the story and one day I hope it will reappear in some magazine or anthology. It’s certainly one of my personal favourites.

A few other writers have given their mysteries a football background, although relatively few have achieved major success. But one of the more interesting, albeit a period piece, seems to be The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. The book by Leonard Gribble was published in 1939 and quickly turned into a film that has, it seems, an enduring appeal. I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film, but the latter is readily and cheaply available on DVD, so I’m planning to get hold of a copy soon.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

A Night to Remember




It’s been a truly memorable week, but Thursday was best of all. I spent much of the day at the new Wembley National Stadium – fascinating for a lifelong football fan – and called briefly at 221b Baker Street before sprinting across to the opulent Four Seasons Hotel in Park Lane. There will be more about Wembley and Sherlock’s home another day, but the main event was the Crime Writers’ Association's Dagger awards evening at the Four Seasons.

Over drinks before dinner, I had the pleasure of meeting fellow Allison & Busby novelist Elizabeth Corley and her husband Mike; our publicist Chiara Priorelli, had arranged for us all to be on the same table, and very good companions they were.

This was the fifth time I’ve been short-listed for a literary award, and so I’ve had plenty of practice in the art of managing my own expectations. Considering that the short-list included American best-sellers Michael Connelly and Laura Lippman, as well as former winners of the Short Story Dagger, Danuta Reah and Robert Barnard, it won’t strike anyone as surprising that I didn’t fancy my chances. So it came as a genuine thrill when Lesley Horton, chair of the CWA, opened the envelope and announced that I had won the award for best short story, for ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’, which Maxim Jakubowski included in his latest The Mammoth Book of Best British Mysteries. An unforgettable moment.

I said a few words in a kind of daze, and enjoyed the rest of the presentations in an am-I-dreaming? sort of way. Everyone around was very generous and of course I enjoyed a few drinks after the ceremonial part of the evening was over. Among people I met for the first time was Mick Herron, who contributed a short story to the latest CWA anthology and, it turns out, works on the editorial team of an employment law update magazine that I read every week. I also had the chance of a chat with Frances Fyfield, who was justifiably ecstatic to have won the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel of the year. I’ve known Frances for a long time, and have enjoyed her writing since she began her career; her success is utterly deserved.

Friday, 11 July 2008

CADS 54

The arrival of a new issue of CADS, the fanzine edited by Geoff Bradley, is always a cause for rejoicing as far as I’m concerned. I first met Geoff at the 1990 Bouchercon in London, and soon after that I came across CADS. I’ve been hooked on it ever since.

In this issue, I’ve contributed a few reviews of older books (by Boileau and Narcejac, Durbridge, Rupert Penny and Milward Kennedy) but the real meat is in the articles, and as usual, they are a varied assortment. As usual, the emphasis is not on contemporary crime, and this is a good thing: there are plenty of sources of information about current novels, and much less about the hidden gems of the past. CADS fills the gap admirably.

There are two articles extolling the work of H.C. Bailey. Bailey was a major writer of the Golden Age, ranking, in some estimations, alongside Christie and Sayers, but time has not treated his reputation well. I’ve read a few Bailey short stories, featuring his sleuth Reggie Fortune, and I have a couple of his novels (one features his other series character, a rascally solicitor – shock, horror! – with the improbable name of Joshua Clunk) which I haven’t got round to reading. The recommendations of Nick Fuller and Barry Pike, both of whom are reliable commentators on Golden Age detective fiction, made me resolve to push Bailey up the to-be-read pile.

Among other things, this issue includes an interesting article about Ronald Knox, who laid down ten famous commandments for detective novelists, and a piece by Philip Scowcroft about one of my all-time favourites, Anthony Berkeley. Philip is an immensely knowledgeable crime reader, and he and I collaborated a while back on an article for CADS about the late Cyril Hare. His memory for books read long ago is astonishing and he it was who once pointed me in the direction of Dorothy Bowers, a talented novelist of whom I’d never before heard. This is the merit of fanzines like CADS – they highlight fresh possibilities, reminding readers that just because a writer is forgotten, it doesn’t mean that he or she was not worth reading.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Slavery, ancient and modern


On my birthday trip round some of Liverpool’s museums and galleries, I was determined to look at the relatively new International Slavery Museum, which is part of National Museums Liverpool, an organisation with which I’ve been associated since its inception just over 20 years ago, and which has under its wing such marvellous places as the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool Museum, the Conservation Centre and the Maritime Museum. The new museum is housed in the same building as the Maritime, in the Albert Dock, surely one of the most impressive locations imaginable for any public building.

The exhibits are thought-provoking and Liverpool is a good place for a slavery museum to be established, since the city grew rich partly through its involvement in the slave trade. Even after the abolition of slavery in the UK two centuries ago, Liverpool merchants gave support to the Confederate cause.

Slavery is one of the key background themes in Waterloo Sunset. One of the issues addressed in the book is my belief that, in some ways, slavery is still very much with us, albeit in a very different way from that of the past. I don’t like writing preachy books, and Waterloo Sunset is first and foremost intended to be a piece of breezy entertainment. But in my opinion, that doesn’t mean that such a novel cannot address serious social issues in (I hope) a meaningful way.

Incidentally, I’m glad to say that the book is continuing to pick up very positive reviews. The latest in the UK comes from the Magistrates Association. Magistrates don’t always look kindly on lawyers’ fiction (especially when it comes in the form of a plea of mitigation on behalf of an undeserving client) so I was very pleased by this one.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Lakeland Books




I was delighted to have the chance yesterday to squeeze in the lunch at which the Lakeland Book of the Year award was made. The event took place in the Langdale Chase, a hotel with a wonderful outlook over Windermere. As someone said, the scene was drenched, rather than sun-drenched, but of course that is nothing new in the Lakes.

The judging panel was headed by Hunter Davies, who told me that these are the leading regional book awards in Britain, and included biographer Kathleen Jones and the very polished broadcaster Fiona Armstrong. Almost all of the books in contention for the award were non-fiction, but fellow novelist Sarah Hall was also in the running; her debut novel, the acclaimed Haweswater, won the main prize five years ago. It’s a sign of the enormous popularity of Cumbria as a setting for books of all kinds that there were more than sixty entries for the award. All the more surprising (though nice for me) that British detective novelists have not used it as a setting for a detective series until now.

This time around, the overall winner was a lavishly produced book about the gardens, small and large, were are one of the many attractions of the Lake District; I certainly enjoyed researching them when writing The Cipher Garden and perhaps my favourite was Stagshaw, a National Trust garden not far away from the Langdale Chase.

Among the other short-listed titles, I also really liked the look of a book (boasting a foreword by the Duke of Edinburgh, no less) about the enticing but often dangerous pathways across Morecambe Bay – these feature memorably, by the way, in a Golden Age detective novel by E.C.R. Lorac.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Don't know much about art...



I took a day’s holiday from work yesterday to celebrate (or try to console myself about) my latest birthday. Because of the vile weather forecast, we headed for…well, Liverpool, where I work. A busman’s holiday, perhaps, but a rare chance to wander round and explore some of the city’s riches at leisure.

First stop was Tate Liverpool. I’m ashamed to admit that, since attending the preview when the Tate first opened in the city, I’ve hardly ever returned – even though this great gallery is only a short walk from my office, in the wonderful riverside setting of Albert Dock. But in 2008 there really was no excuse, because the Tate is staging an exhibition of the work of Gustav Klimt, and his Viennese compatriots, to commemorate Capital of Culture Year.

I knew very little about Klimt until recently, but the enthusiasm of others who have visited the show made me delve a little into his life and work, which are certainly interesting. The exhibition lived up to the hype, and I also grabbed the opportunity to take a look at the Tate’s current exhibition of modern(ish) abstract art, which included some brilliant pieces, as well as some that struck me as rather less brilliant.

I really enjoyed my close encounter with Gustav Klimt – his landscapes, for instance, were an unexpected treat - and I’ve decided to think of the whole experience as very pleasurably research. I’m not sure in precisely what way yet, but Gustav Klimt will certainly feature in my next Lake District Mystery. At last, with proof checking and other tasks out of the way, I'm aiming to get on with the new book - at last!

Monday, 7 July 2008

The Incomparable Witness

I don’t often listen to plays on BBC Radio 4, but this isn’t down to lack of enthusiasm. And when fellow blogger Juliet recommended me to listen to a play about Bernard Spilsbury recently, I hastened to make use of the excellent BBC iplayer.

‘The Incomparable Witness’ was written by Nichola McAuliffe, a capable actor who has begun to combine her career on stage and screen with crime writing. Spilsbury is an intriguing subject for study, a brilliant forensic pathologist who was a legendary expert witness, but who was also a deeply troubled individual. He ended his life by his own hand.

Spilsbury made his name as a witness for the prosecution in the Crippen case, and his evidence at the Old Bailey was central to the radio play. His authoritative testimony helped to destroy the credibility of the defence experts, and played a crucial part in nudging Crippen towards the gallows.

I’m fascinated by Spilsbury and his career, but I’m even more fascinated by the Crippen case. More about it soon.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Final Analysis

Final Analysis is a 1992 movie described in some quarters as ‘neo noir’. Certainly, its elements are familiar, with a na├»ve if charming man falling victim to a glamorous blonde with murder on her mind. Fans of Vertigo will appreciate various references – not just the San Francisco setting, but also a couple of scenes in a lighthouse which call that classic Hitchcock film very much to mind. This time around, the plangent music isn’t courtesy of Bernard Hermann, but rather written by George Fenton, a British composer I first became aware of through his music for that excellent and much-missed tv series ‘Shoestring’.

Richard Gere plays a psychiatrist whose patient, Una Thurman encourages him to talk to her sister. Una’s sister turns out to be Kim Basinger, and Richard immediately becomes infatuated with her. This is understandable, for sure, but unwise, not least because Kim’s husband happens to be a rather unpleasant gangster with a taste for violence.

In a variation on the themes of Double Indemnity and Body Heat, Kim doesn’t persuade Richard to kill the nasty husband, but rather does the deed herself, and then has Richard use his professional expertise to assist her defence attorney get her off – or, rather, obtain a verdict that she was not responsible for her actions because she suffered from ‘pathological intoxication’ (a new concept to me, though it’s just possible I may have known one or two people who suffered from it.)

I enjoyed this film. It isn’t conspicuous for its subtlety, but the star cast does a good job with the twists and turns of the plot, and for the most part I managed to suspend disbelief. Good entertainment.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Humour

Humour is a tricky thing in crime fiction. The comic crime novel is to be approached with caution – very few people pull it off successfully, although over the years Colin Watson, Pamela Branch, Joyce Porter and Simon Brett in the UK and Craig Rice and Kinky Friedman among others in the US have earned loyal followings. But even if the main aim of the book is not to amuse, humour often has an important part to play. Apart from any other consideration, it can provide balance and relief, given that the subject matter of crime, mystery and often savage death can be very grim indeed.

Over the years, many crime writers have recognised this. There are shafts of wit in Conan Doyle as well as in some of the Victorian and Edwardian stories featuring the rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie is sometimes mistakenly thought of as a humourless writer, but there are a number of passages in her books which prove otherwise. When I’m reading, I enjoy books that blend strong plots, characterisation and settings with a touch of wit. Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of laughs in the work of two writers whom I greatly admire, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, but certainly, humour plays an enormously important part in the work of such successful novelists as Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard and H.R.F. Keating.

As for my own books, the Harry Devlin novels contain plenty of humour. Waterloo Sunset will, I hope, amuse as well as mystify my readers, despite all the dark goings-on. However, the first Lake District Mystery, The Coffin Trail, was a rather serious affair, and the same was true to an extent of the second, The Cipher Garden. However, by the time I wrote The Arsenic Labyrinth, I was ready to relax the style somewhat and I like to think there is a lot of black humour in the portrayal of the drifter Guy. And Take My Breath Away was meant to be packed with political satire. Unfortunately, not many of the reviewers seemed to notice. An exception was that voice of the ‘Old Left’, The Morning Star, whose perceptive critic ‘got’ exactly what I was trying to achieve.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Natasha Cooper

I’ve written posts about a good many crime novelists since this blog started, but there are, of course, even more talented practitioners whom I haven’t yet got round to mentioning. One of them is Natasha Cooper, a consistently entertaining writer with whom I had an enjoyable lunch recently while we were attending Crimefest at Bristol. She’s been a full-time writer for around twenty years, but before then she worked in publishing, and during our conversation I found her insights into that fascinating (if often maddening) business to be full of interest as well as common sense.

Natasha Cooper is, in fact, a pseudonym, which conceals the identity of Daphne Wright. I’ve known Daphne for a number of years, and I enjoyed her early books some years before we first met. She chaired the Crime Writers’ Association and has also been heavily involved with the Harrogate crime festival in recent years. At Crimefest, she was ‘Toastrix’ at the Saturday evening banquet, and performed that tricky task with her customary unobtrusive efficiency; the speeches were made, and the awards were awarded, with speed as well as grace, and she was one of those responsible for ensuring that the banquet was enjoyable throughout and didn’t become too protracted.

The name of Natasha Cooper is not, I think, generally associated with short stories, but I was gratified a couple of years back when she submitted a short story for consideration for a CWA anthology I was editing, with a theme of ‘crimes of identity’. The story, ‘The People in the Flat across the Road’, was crisp and effective and I didn’t hesitate before accepting it. At the launch of the book in the Pump Rooms at Harrogate, she read the story and members of the audience were as enthusiastic in their reaction as I had been.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The Ice House





The Ice House is the title of one of the outstanding debut crime novels of the 1990s. It was the award-winning mystery that set Minette Walters on the path to fame and fortune. I read the book shortly after it was published – the year after my own first novel came out – and I was impressed. I rather assumed that Walters would use it as the starting point for a series, but she confounded my expectations by following it with a stand-alone, The Sculptress, which was even better.

But what was an ice house? The answer is that it was a cold store used in the days before the advent of the refrigerator. There are the remains of a couple not far from where I live. One is in the grounds of the now vanished Marbury Hall (top photo.) The other, rather different, is in the grounds of Lymm Hall (lower photos.)

The Lymm Hall ice house was used in the eighteenth century. Blocks of ice wer cut and stored in it, between layers of straw. The roof of the ice house was covered with a thick layer of soil which acted as insulation. The ice house fell into disuse and was partially dismantled, but the remains are interesting to look at – and dangerous to fall into.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Lymm and Sherlock




I've written a number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but wandering round the grounds of Lymm Hall on Sunday, I discovered that there is a more interesting link between my home village and the great detective. And it's one I wasn't aware of.

The Shippon is in the grounds of the Hall. It is now the ‘yellow courtyard garden’, but it was once transformed into, of all places, Chatham Station for a Sherlock Holmes story featuring Jeremy Brett which was filmed partly in Lymm in 1992. The explanation, I imagine, is that the series was produced by Granada TV, whose home city is in Manchester, not too far away. The grounds of nearby Arley Hall were also used for scenes in one or two of the Jeremy Brett cases.

The Shippon was converted into a house in 1995 and a formal garden was laid out. Nobody looking at this tranquil spot today would guess that the greatest detective of them all was once played here by – arguably – his finest screen interpreter. I must admit that I prefer Basil Rathbone and possibly Douglas Wilmer to Brett as Holmes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire what Brett did with the character in the early series, which I thought more successful than the later ones.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Up the garden path





I’m very keen on gardens – although not, I must admit, on gardening: Sitting out in the garden reading a good book on a sunny afternoon is a wonderful way to spend the time, and I’d like to do it more often. Whenever the chance to visit other people’s gardens comes, though, I like to grab it if I possibly can.

Lymm Festival is currently under way and on Sunday, with family and friends (including fellow crime writer Kate Ellis) I wandered round some of the private gardens that were thrown open for the day by their owners. And very impressive they were – ranging from brand new gardens in the middle of incomplete housing estates, to the fabulous grounds of Lymm Hall.

As usual, I found my thoughts wandering to murder. When I wrote the Harry Devlin books and Take My Breath Away, with city settings, there was no scope for exploring gardens. Writing books set in the Lakes, however, presented me with the opportunity to create a mysterious garden in Brackdale, which features in the very first chapter of The Coffin Trail. The secret of the garden is, though, not revealed until the events of The Cipher Garden (it forms a sub-plot, rather than the main mystery, and I’m quite sure readers who come across the second book first will not have their enjoyment spoiled if they later read the first book.)

Quite a number of other crime writers, Ruth Rendell amongst them, have featured gardens in their crime novels. One writer who made a particular speciality of gardening mysteries was the late John Sherwood. I only met him once, at a CWA conference in Tunbridge Wells in the early 90s. He was an amiable chap and I was sorry not to have had the opportunity to get to know him better.