Friday, 31 October 2008

Forgotten Book - Thus Was Adonis Murdered

My latest entry in Patti Abbott's series, Friday's Forgotten Books, is Sarah Caudwell's Thus Was Adonis Murdered

Sarah Caudwell’s strange career as a crime writer was cut short by her untimely death in 2000. In almost two decades, she produced only four novels, and the last of those – The Sibyl in her Grave was published posthumously, and then initially in the United States but not at first in her native England.

By that time, deplorably, her original publishers seemed to have tired of her agonisingly slow rate of productivity. Yet Caudwell won many devoted admirers with work which seemed, even at the start of her career, to belong to a much earlier age. Her style is eccentric and mannered, with academic and legalistic overtones, but above all it is witty. Her plots are intricate and somewhat contrived. She makes great use of letters as a means of conveying information to the reader. The gender of her series detective, Professor Hilary Tamar, is never revealed. All in all, Caudwell was a one-off, whose passing all lovers of the ingenious whodunit lamented. Thus Was Adonis Murdered introduced Hilary and her friends at 62 New Square in Lincoln’s Inn. It is an intricate story, remarkably told, which earned Caudwell immediate acclaim, and – because the book seemed to belong to another age even when it came out in 1981 – it has worn pretty well. Caudwell is an acquired taste, but for those willing to step into a make-believe world, she offers rich entertainment. Great fun.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Gorgon's Wood

From the very first episode, I’ve been a huge fan of Jonathan Creek. David Renwick’s brilliant scripts are both very clever and very witty – and that’s a dazzling trick for any writer to pull off. The stories are updates of the classic ‘impossible crime’ mystery, and Renwick’s achievement is to show that even a supposedly ‘played-out’ type of story can be revived if the writer doing the reviving is gifted enough. I’ve never met him, but I much admire both this series and that superb, and equally original, comedy series ‘One Foot in the Grave’.

I’ve just taken another look at one of the later Creek shows, ‘Gorgon’s Wood’. A celebrity chef owns a priceless statue of a Chinese monk and is persuaded to lend it to a museum. But while the curator communes with the statue in private, it disappears – but where? Once Creek comes on the scene, the culprit is soon discovered, but that is far from the end of the story. As often in this series, there are several very dark twists as well as plenty of light moments.

I thoroughly enjoyed this episode on a second viewing. And – trivia alert! - I was intrigued to discover that actress who played the curator’s very glamorous daughter is Alice Patten, daughter of the former Tory MP and Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Talking to Strange Men

I read Ruth Rendell’s novel Talking to Strange Men not long after it came out, just over 20 years ago, but I had forgotten the plot by the time I came to watch a re-run of the television adaptation starring John Duttine (one of Britain’s most charismatic actors, I’ve long felt), and the gorgeous, if glacial, Mel Martin. (Keeley Hawes, now the glamorous co-star of Ashes to Ashes, had a small part, though I must admit I didn’t recognise her until the credits revealed her identity.)

The story involves a group of boys who are involved in sending coded messages which Duttine’s character intercepts, but fails to understand. Duttine is embittered by the fact that his wife (Martin) has deserted him for a man called Peter Mullen. He doesn’t want to lose Martin and refuses her a divorce. He also tries to implicate Mullen in the murder of his long-dead sister, but it turns out that Mullen has an alibi – because, at the time of the killing, he was molesting a young boy, a crime for which he served a short prison sentence. As a result of a typically Rendellesque series of coincidences, Mullen becomes involved with one of the boys involved in the secret code game, with fatal results.

I enjoyed the novel, and relished the televised version all over again. And here’s a bit of trivia – Duttine and Martin fell for each other while working on the programme, and married a year later.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Third Girl

Even though it’s a long time since I read some of her books, I find that a large number of Agatha Christie plots stick in my mind. Not just the obvious classics, but some of the more obscure stories. But one that I’ve completely forgotten is the story-line of Third Girl, an attempt to catch up with the Swinging Sixties that I didn’t rate highly when I first read it, and which most critics are quick to dismiss.

But now Third Girl has been adapted for TV, and I’ve watched David Suchet investigate the case with the assistance of Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver. Mrs Oliver is one of Christie’s most likeable characters, and the idea of casting one of our most likeable actors to play her was quite inspired. Suchet is marvellous as Poirot – as usual – when a girl arrives at his home to announce that she thinks she may have murdered someone.

The girl in question proves to be Norma Restarick, and a tale involving family complications and inheritance unfolds. Peter Bowles, a supremely urbane and charming actor, and the splendid Haydn Gwynne also feature in the cast. All in all, an enjoyable programme, despite the protracted denouement.

As for the story, the screenwriter played fast and loose with the source material. But given my uncharacteristic (I’m a real Poirot fan) lack of enthusiasm for the book, it’s strongly arguable that this is a rare example of television improving on Christie’s original.

Incidentally, later today I'll be following (in a sense) in Christie's footsteps - more on this next week.

Monday, 27 October 2008

The Serpent

One of the most intriguing features of The Serpent is that it is, apparently, a movie based on a book written by Ted Lewis. Now the late Ted Lewis is well remembered as author of Jack’s Return Home, which formed the basis of that brilliant Michael Caine film Get Carter. But his other work is much less renowned. I’d never heard of The Serpent, and a quick glance at Wikipedia suggests that the source work is, in fact, a novel called Plender.

I can’t tell how faithful the film is to the novel, but Plender is the name of one of the two central characters. He is a shady private eye with a penchant for blackmail. At the start of the film, his stunningly attractive sidekick Sofia seduces an ageing lawyer and compromising photographs are taken. But it proves, in the long run, to be an unwise plan.

The main protagonist is a fashion photographer called Mandel, who is going through matrimonial difficulties. His glamorous blonde wife is the daughter of a multi-millionaire, and his two young children are utterly charming, but for some reason he isn’t satisfied with his lot. Yet when Sofia turns up in place of his usual model, in suspicious circumstances, he resists her attempts at seduction. Neverttheless, she accuses him of rape, and although she drops the charges, when she calls him and offers to explain, he is naïve enough to invite her round to his studio. Big mistake.

I enjoyed this film, which turns out to be a revenge thriller. The latter stages are rather over the top, but the menacing first third of the movie, before the nature of the plot becomes discernible, are chilly and gripping. One of these days, I’d like to read the book.

On another note, lovely reviews of Waterloo Sunset and The Arsenic Labyrinth have just appeared on Eurocrime and Mysteries in Paradise respectively. Much appreciated.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

A Case for the CID

The third inscribed book that I acquired recently from Jamie Sturgeon is called A Case for the CID. It was first published in 1933 and comes from the pen of Mrs Philip Champion De Crespigny. Which to my mind is a wonderful name for anyone, let alone a teller of tales.

Preliminary research indicates that Mrs Champion De Crespigny’s first name was Rose. When husband Philip died, she became passionately interested in spiritualism, lecturing on the subject and sometimes featuring it in her numerous novels. A quick Google search suggests that the Champion De Crespigny family stretches back many generations and is of considerable distinction. And the first few pages of the book indicate a competent and professional writer, if not a specialist in complex plots.

Her inscription (‘to Agnes’) is simply signed ‘from the Author’. Perhaps if your name is Mrs Philip Champion De Crespigny, it eventually becomes a bit wearisome to sign in full.

(By the way, the latest additions to the blogroll are David Cranmer and Scott Parker, two American writers I'm pleased to have discovered.)

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Sands of Windee

Thanks to Jamie Sturgeon, I’ve finally acquired a paperback I’ve had my eye on (but found rather elusive) for several years. It is The Sands of Windee, by the Australian author Arthur Upfield.

I first became aware of this novel when researching for my book about true crime cases, Urge To Kill, which includes a section on ‘murder inspired by crime fiction’. In 1929, Upfield was working on a book which needed the victim’s body to be destroyed so that it was not identifiable. He discussed the problem with his mates (as you do) and it was suggested that the victim should be shot and then burned on a wood fire. The culprit could return to the fire later and sift through the ashes, removing and destroying any evidence.

Three years later, John Thomas Smith (who used the marvellous alias of Snowy Rowles) was charged with a similar murder and Upfield was called to give evidence at the trial of the conversation, in which Snowy had taken part. His testimony was controversial, and arguably irrelevant, but Snowy was found guilty, all the same.

It’s a story that has long fascinated me. It will be interesting to see whether The Sands of Windee, which uses the method that Upfield discussed with Snowy, is equally memorable.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Forgotten Book - Five Minutes with a Stranger

This is my latest contribution to Patti Abbott's series about mysteries that deserve not to fall into oblivion.

Miles Tripp (1923-2001) began his crime writing career with the well-regarded Kilo Forty in 1963, but although his last novel, Deadly Ordeal was published as late as the year before his death, he never quite established the reputation that his early success suggested was likely.

One reason for this may have been that, for much of his life, writing took second place to his work as a lawyer employed by the Charity Commission. Another may be the sheer variety of his work: he veered from straightforward sixties thrillers, written as Michael Brett to sporadic entries in a series featuring private investigator John Samson. A number of the Samson books have considerable merit, but Five Minutes with a Stranger has lingered in my mind since I first read it not long after publication and a re-reading confirms it as my favourite of the Tripp novels that I have encountered.

It is a stunning and occasionally gruesome tour de force that comes as close as any novel by an English writer to the macabre sensationalism of Boileau and Narcejac. An un-named narrator, a young and naïve man, is conducting a study into the meaning of ‘charity’. Posing as an accident victim walking along the highways and byways, he seeks a Good Samaritan who will give him a lift. A beautiful woman stops for him; when she takes off her dark glasses, he realises that she is terribly disfigured. Soon he plunges into a nightmarish sequence of events and, although suspension of disbelief is required, the book is not only unsettling but also thought-provoking. This is a novel that deserves to be better known.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

I have at last watched this movie, a period piece which shows how much both football and film-making have changed in the last seventy years.

The mystery element is quite lively. A big football match has been arranged between Arsenal and ‘the Trojans’, a fictitious amateur team. The amateurs include a player called Doyce, whose talents extend beyond the soccer pitch to making enemies right, left and centre. Having scored an equaliser, he keels over in mid-pitch before the game is over, and after being carried off is found to be dead. Sensation - murder at Highbury!

It’s a fun film, and also a reminder of how tricky it is to write a truly convincing full-length mystery about football. I speak from experience – in my early twenties, I wrote a never-to-be-published novel about the game, called Dead Shot. I ran out of money to pay the typist I’d hired when she was on about chapter five, so the rest of the handwritten manuscript never got typed. Probably just as well….

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Baltimore events

In addition to participating in Bouchercon, I had the chance to become involved with a couple of other crime-related events whilst in Baltimore, both thanks to invitations from Ann Cleeves, who was coming towards the end of a long but very successful tour of the States.

Ann has close links with the tour organisation Elderhostel, and last year I too spent some time with Elderhostel clients who are fans of crime fiction in both Oxford and Harrogate. Elderhostel is rooted in the US, but with a UK offshoot, and their staff always seem impressively committed to making sure that their clients have a great time.

Ann gave their clients a talk about her Shetland books, and played a DVD of the islands which made them (and me) very keen to pay it a visit one day. I gave a talk on the evolution of the detective story, with an emphasis on Golden Age mysteries – and fittingly enough, my visit to Poe’s grave had taken place earlier that day and proved rather inspirational.

I also attended the city’s Enoch Pratt Library for a performance of Ann’s ‘Body in the Library’ murder mystery event. The Library is impressive, and the event took place in the Poe room - oddly enough, one of the first books I spotted in the glass cases was a biography of the great man written in the 1930s by a relative of my wife's, the poet and writer Edward Shanks.

I’ve seen 'The Body in the Library' before, but enjoy it every time, not least because it is to her example and encouragement that I owe the development of my own Victorian murder mystery event, ‘Who Killed George Hargrave?’

Tuesday, 21 October 2008


Before I leave the subject of the Baltimore Bouchercon, I thought I would mention something that crossed my mind during the convention. It is simply this – that there are so many hundreds of writers at such an event that I found it quite a sobering reminder that I am a very small fish in a very large pool. A humbling reflection, though it in no way diminishes the fun and enjoyment of the event.

Various other writers seem to have had much the same impression. For instance, one highly successful crime novelist who recently concluded a major television deal expressed the view, based on discussions with one or two angst-ridden superstars, that it’s inevitable, and simple human nature, to feel that one is under-achieving compared to others – however many awards one wins, however many times one appears in the best-seller lists.

I like to feel that my own writing career is on an upward trajectory (very slowly upward, I must admit, but upward nonetheless!) but there were several reminders of what a precarious business writing is. I talked, for example, to two very good writers from America who have recently had their contracts cancelled by their major US publishers. Given the quality of their work, it’s hard to understand and must be very hard for them to swallow.

But enough of this introspection. I haven’t been able to mention all the highlights of Baltimore for me, by any means. But a random selection, additional to those I’ve spoken of before, would include lunch with the delightful Caroline Upcher (aka Hope McIntyre), a sunny sight-seeing water taxi trip to historic Fell’s Point with Ann Cleeves, dinner with Steve Steinbock, late nights in the hotel bar drinking and chatting with the likes of Jason Goodwin and, on my last night in town, Stephen Booth, meeting Australian lawyer and crime enthusiast Sarah Byrne for the first time in a decade, and encountering a good many people for the first time, not least Mary Saums, Julie Compton (I’ve added her blog to the blogroll), and Deborah Crombie (whose books I’ve admired for years), as well as a host of fellow bloggers, booksellers and the most important people of all – the readers and fans.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Three more editors

Janet Hutchings wasn’t the only editor I met at Bouchercon. George Easter, Andrew Gulli and Arthur Vidro are great enthusiasts for mystery fiction and they edit very enjoyable, though very different, magazines. George and I have known each other for more than fifteen years – which was even before he started up ‘Deadly Pleasures’, a fanzine to which I have often contributed. He introduced himself to me at the Toronto Bouchecon back in 1992, when the ‘Deadly Pleasures’ project was meant to be a book rather than a magazine. We’ve been in touch ever since.

George has long been a fan of the Harry Devlin books and he kindly supplied me with an early copy of the latest issue of ‘Deadly Pleasures’. By happy coincidence, this issue includes a great review of Waterloo Sunset:

‘…this wonderful series…..Martin Edwards is a fine writer and in Waterloo Sunset he kept me guessing to the very end.’

Very good for morale, needless to say!

In contrast to George, Andrew Gulli is someone I haven’t met before, although I’ve contributed a number of stories to ‘The Strand Magazine’, which he edits. It was good to have a chat with him (and get a sneak preview of the next edition.) I owe Andrew quite a debt, because it was he who first published ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’. If he hadn’t asked me for a story, it’s not certain I’d have written the story that won the CWA Dagger for me this summer.

Finally, Arthur Vidro is responsible for the Old Time Detection fanzine I’ve featured here a couple of times. And again, albeit all too briefly, I had the pleasure of meeting at long last someone whose publications I’ve enjoyed for quite a while.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Janet Hutchings and EQMM

One of the real highlights of my trip to Baltimore was to be invited to lunch by Janet Hutchings, the editor of ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’. We originally met ten years ago, when the first US edition of one of my novels was published, and I visited New York ahead of a trip to the Philadelphia Bouchercon, and it was lovely to see her again.

Janet has published a sizeable number of my stories in EQMM over the years and I’m grateful to have such a connection with a marvellous short story magazine that now enjoys legendary status within the genre.

Janet also introduced me to an American crime writer I hadn’t come across before – Melodie Johnson Howe (lower photo.) Melodie turned to crime (fictionally) after a career in acting, and I’m keen to check out her work.

Incidentally, Melodie is married, as she says, to a legend – the record producer Bones Howe. Bones produced one of my favourite sixties songs of lost love – ‘One Less Bell To Answer’, written by the great Burt Bacharach, who featured yesterday in an interview in 'The Guardian', and whose latest concert at The Roundhouse is to be televised on the BBC on Tuesday night (just as well because I couldn't get a ticket...) The title of that song, by the way, is one I fancy using for a crime story one of these days.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Poe and a pilgrimage

Edgar Allan Poe was the founding father of the detective genre, and achieved much else beside. ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’ introduced the Great Detective, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, and although Poe only wrote five tales that truly fall within the crime fiction genre, they set some of the templates with which we still work today.

Poe inaugurated the locked room/impossible crime detective story, and ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ is a classic of armchair detection, while ‘Thou Art the Man’ is a ‘least likely person’ story and ‘The Gold Bug’ involves the decoding of a cipher. A favourite of mine is ‘The Purloined Letter’, a neat example of hiding something in plain view – a skill which, much later, Agatha Christie mastered to particularly brilliant effect.

Poe has a very close association with Baltimore (although Philadelphia also has claims on him.) Unfortunately, I didn’t find the time to visit the Poe House in the city, but I did manage to make a pilgrimage to his grave, in the marvellously atmospheric churchyard just off Fayette Street. It is only a stone’s throw from the very different, but equally memorable ‘World Famous Lexington Market’.

Oddly enough, I visited Christie’s grave in the pretty English village of Cholsey for the first time earlier this year. Poe’s last resting place, in the midst of the urban bustle, could hardly be more different, and indeed the lives of the two writers were utterly dissimilar. But that is the appeal of the crime genre – it appeals to all kinds of people, and the diversity of crime writers and fans was as much in evidence at Bouchercon as their shared love of mysteries.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Forgotten Book - The Dying Alderman

My latest Friday’s Forgotten Book for Patti Abbott’s series is The Dying Alderman, by Henry Wade

The more I read of Henry Wade, the more my admiration for his contribution to the crime genre grows. This was his fourth book, published in 1930, and it blends routine police work with classic mystery elements in beguiling fashion. By the time the novel was published, Wade was being compared to then very highly regarded Freeman Wills Crofts (and Inspector French’s enthusiasm for food receives a passing mention). But Wade had a closer knowledge of real-life police work than Crofts and the interplay between the local detective, the military man newly appointed as chief constable, and the Scotland Yard man (Inspector Lott; Wade’s principal detective, Inspector Poole, had made one appearance by this time, but does not play a part in this story) is enjoyable and convincing.

As in other Wade books, there are echoes of the Great War in the presence of Chief Constable Race, and his old friend Hallis, who is one of those suspected of killing Alderman Trant. There is, perhaps, too much harping on about the precise time of death of the victim (we are provided not only with a table of timings – hinting at alibis and so on - but also with a variant table, which offers ‘mean’ calculations of precise times, bearing in mind differences in witness evidence), and this slows the narrative down to a degree unacceptable to a modern reader.

By way of compensation, the novel features corruption in local government – Trant appears to be a ‘whistle-blower’ – and thus possesses a timeless quality. It also boasts a ‘dying message’ clue, the meaning of which is revealed in the very last line – although most readers, surely, will have solved it much earlier. Unusually, the closing scenes yield two suicides, as well as a lengthy confession – that final ‘twist’ was Wade’s attempt to overcome any suspicion of anti-climax. The motive for the murder seemed to me to be disappointingly thin, but overall the book stands up tolerably well to twenty-first century scrutiny.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Guests of Honour

I’m lucky to have an excellent US publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, and one of the highlights of Bouchercon was the richly deserved Lifetime Achievement award given to Barbara Peters and Rob Rosenwald, the presiding geniuses behind PPP and the legendary Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. They have long been huge supporters of my writing and seeing them again was one of the highlights of my trip.

At the opening ceremony of Bouchercon last Thursday night, the award was presented to Barbara and Rob by Val McDermid and, to my surprise and pleasure, I found myself up on the podium as well, along with Martyn Waites, presenting the Fan Guest of Honour award to Britain’s own Thalia Proctor. The other guests of honour included Baltimore’s own Laura Lippman, and Britain’s John Harvey, while Mark Billingham was a very accomplished Toastmaster.

The photo of Martyn, Val and me at the awards ceremony was taken, and kindly emailed to me yesterday, by that great crime expert Ali Karim (whom I first met at the Bouchercon in Las Vegas a few years back, although it turns out that he lives not far from me in Cheshire.)

Later on Thursday evening, Barbara and Rob hosted a party for PPP authors in the Sheraton Hotel’s rather impressive Presidential Suite up on the 27th floor. This gave me the chance to catch up with a fellow Brit, Kate Charles (we also share a UK publisher, Allison & Busby) as well as to talk to a variety of PPP authors I’ve never met before, such as Robin Burcell.

Also at the party was Joni Langevoort, who is on the board of Malice Domestic, a Washington-based convention focusing on the traditional mystery. I met Joni on my first visit to Malice a couple of years back, and it was good to recall the fun I had on my one and only visit to D.C.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Bouchercon - the panels

I was very lucky this Bouchercon to have the chance to speak on three panels – at a guess, a total audience of two hundred plus. For those who have never been to a convention, the idea is that each panel has a theme (often rather loose) and four or five writers are guided by a moderator to talk about issues connected with that theme.

The first panel, last Thursday, was about ‘getting cops right in fiction’ and was moderated by Dave Case. The other participants included Caroline Todd, a charming lady who co-writes the Inspector Rutledge mysteries with her son, under the name Charles Todd. I still recall enjoying the first book in that series, the excellent historical mystery A Test of Wills.

The same afternoon, I shared in a panel about ‘telling lies for a living’ moderated by Thomas B. Cavanagh, and a very good group of fellow panellists which included that much lauded novelist Laurie King, Alison Gaylin, and another Brit, Martyn Waites, who was very witty, as usual.

Finally, on Sunday morning, Ann Cleeves moderated an enjoyable panel on a regular convention topic, the importance of setting in mystery fiction. My colleagues that time were Pari Noskin Taichert, Kathy Lynn Emerson (author of a ‘how to write’ book about historical mysteries that I just had to buy, despite the weight of my suitcases) and fellow Poisoned Pen Press author Carolyn Wall.

I’ve moderated several panels myself over the years and I know that moderating is no easy task – yet it’s very important. All three moderators had very different styles. I’d never met Dave or Tom before, whereas I’ve been involved in countless events with Murder Squad pal Ann. Dave’s approach was very laid-back, Tom had prepared detailed questions, and Ann, with her customary efficiency, arranged a meeting of her panellists on Saturday afternoon, which helped us all to get to know each other, and broke the ice very effectively. Feedback on all the panels, despite the differences of approach, was consistently positive.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Back from Baltimore

I arrived back in the UK yesterday after a hectic week in Baltimore and the excitement and exhaustion associated with Bouchercon, the world’s biggest mystery convention. I caught up with some old friends and had the chance to meet some fascinating people for the first time. Over the next few days, I’ll be talking about some of them.

Baltimore is a city that I really liked and it benefited from being seen at its best. The weather was utterly perfect – sunny, but with the edge often taken off the heat by a pleasant breeze. Over the next few days, I’ll share a few of the hundreds of photos that I took.

Perhaps inevitably, there were one or two regrets and frustrations along the way. For instance, it was a shame to have so little time to talk to some of the very interesting people I met, and there were some people whom I only glimpsed across a crowded room or not at all. And by the time I was really getting into the swing of things – the moment had come to take the taxi back to the airport, and home. But I had a lot of fun, and I’m really glad I went.

Monday, 13 October 2008

The Packet of Death

I’d never heard of Herbert Metcalfe until I came across a signed book of his in Jamie Sturgeon’s catalogue called The Packet of Death. A rather lurid cover proclaims that this is a novel ‘by the author of The Amazing Doctor Khan’, but that too is a novel I have never encountered.

Herbert Metcalfe, it turns out, was a Mancunian salesman. The publisher of his novel, Church and Foster Ltd, was also based in Manchester, and I have to say that they never seem to have made any impression on the world of fictional crime.

I haven’t read the story yet, but it evidently concerns the murder of the British Prime Minister. The blurb highlights as a strong selling point the lack of sexual content: ‘It is clean enough for all the family to read: exciting enough to thrill young and old alike’.

Well, I guess you don’t have to be Poirot to guess why Herbert Metcalfe never became a household name.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Frank Vosper

I’ve acquired a few modestly priced books from that excellent bookseller Jamie Sturgeon. They include three books inscribed by their rather obscure authors.

The best-remembered of the trio is Frank Vosper. He was an actor, born in 1899, who was somewhat typecast as an urbane villain. Like the equally stylish Peter Wyngarde, whom I mentioned in connection with ‘Department S’, Vosper was gay, but in the early years of the 20th century it was necessary to be rather discreet about one’s sexuality. He appeared in Hitchcock’s first (1934) version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and also starred in Love From a Stranger, which he adapted from Agatha Christie’s short story ‘Philomel Cottage’.

Vosper wrote a number of plays, including Murder on the Second Floor (1932.) My signed book is the rather obscure People Like Us, which was apparently based on the classic Thompson-Bywaters case, which inspired the rather more famous A Pin to See the Peep-Show by F. Tennyson Jesse.

A curious feature of People Like Us is that, although it was published in 1929, apparently the Lord Chamberlain banned it and the first stage production did not come until the 1940s.

By then, Vosper was dead. He drowned after falling from a transatlantic liner and his death was only ruled as an accident after much media speculation, involving alleged sexual shenanigans aboard the ship. Sounds as though the bizarre and tragic episode could have provided the raw material for a fictional mystery.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Trojan Tanker

I’ve watched a DVD of the second ever episode of ‘Department S’, a light thriller series from 1969 which I enjoyed as a schoolboy. The opening scene is excellent – a van crashes with a tanker on a dark road. The tanker driver is killed and the van driver looks through a spyhole in the tanker and sees the dead body of a blonde woman in the relatively luxurious interior. Amazed, he summons the police, but by the time they break into the tanker, the body has disappeared.

It’s an excellent ‘locked room’ concept, but the unravelling is weak. It turns out that the woman wasn’t dead after all (though I wasn’t clear why she pretended to be; maybe she was injured in the road accident?) and that the tanker was part of a criminal conspiracy to rob airliners of their freight.

Not a brilliantly plotted mystery, therefore, but not terrible either, and quite fast moving. ‘Department S’ made a star (for a time) out of the suave Peter Wyngarde, who played the crime novelist Jason King, who later had his own spin-off series. His co-stars, Joel Fabiani and Rosemary Nichols, were rather less memorable. In this episode, the guest stars include Simon Oates, whom I remember from the sci-fi series ‘Doomwatch’ and Patricia Haines, who played the glamorous blonde criminal. Haines, I discovered, was Michael Caine’s first wife. But they parted young, and she died in her 40s, of lung cancer. Very sad.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Criminal Tendencies

I’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology to be published by that nice independent publisher Crème de la Crime in spring next year. The title will be Criminal Tendencies and the idea of the book is to raise funds for the Genesis Appeal, which works in the field of breast cancer prevention. Given that my wife’s mother died very young of this terrible disease, I am acutely aware of the effect it can have on people’s lives, and the importance of trying to do more to combat it.

I’m not sure if the full roster of contributors to the book has been finalised, but I gather that it includes the likes of Reginald Hill – a writer of short stories that are quite as wonderful as his novels; ‘The Rio de Janeiro Paper’ and ‘On the Psychiatrist’s Couch’ are particular favourites of mine – and Mark Billingham.

I’ve not been involved with a charity anthology before and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will raise a decent sum for the Genesis Appeal, as well as entertaining plenty of readers.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Liverpool One

Last week saw the opening of the second phase of the massive redevelopment that is Liverpool One, part of the dramatic change within the city that gives Harry Devlin pause for thought in Waterloo Sunset.

Harry worries about whether the city's facelift will become a heart transplant. But as usual, he worries too much, in my opinion. For what it's worth, I don't think Liverpool is losing its heart, or its soul.

The opening was performed by the Princess Royal and, as with so many things, I missed it due to work commitments (the same was true a couple of days later when the QEII docked in Liverpool for the very last time.)

I have, however, had the chance of a quick look round Chavasse Park, which is part of the new scheme, a green space linking the shops and cinemas with the Albert Dock and the river. It all looked pretty good to me. But it will look even better when the weather cheers up.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Audio and Waterloo Sunset

I’ve just received my author copies of the audio version of Waterloo Sunset. Published by Soundings, this is an unabridged set of tapes, with a total running time of eleven hours, and is aimed at the library market. The reader is Gordon Griffin, a very experienced actor who has read a number of my books for audio.

This is the seventh of my novels to be adapted for audio, and the fifth in succession, which is gratifying. I don’t always listen to them in full, but it’s certainly an intriguing experience to hear one’s own words read by an accomplished actor.

Meanwhile, Waterloo Sunset has received an extremely positive review in the Law Society’s Gazette (‘an entertaining and delightful thriller…fast-paced…a fun and compelling yarn’.) Very generous, really, since as the reviewer pointed out, I did tke the risk of teasing the Gazette by causing Harry to crack a sardonic joke at the magazine’s expense!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Old-Time Detection again

I recently received the latest issue of Arthur Vidro’s fanzine, ‘Give Me That Old-Time Detection’, which specialises in Golden Age mysteries (although he was kind enough to mention the fact that ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ won the CWA short story award.) As usual, it’s packed with interesting items.

What I had not realised is that it is published by a ‘special interest group’, or SIG, which is part of Mensa. Being so slow on the uptake really ought in itself to disqualify me from being a member of Mensa, but happily Arthur's journal is available to anyone, regardless of Mensa membership.

Stand-out pieces include a reprint of a skit on John Dickson Carr by William Brittain, articles by Arthur Vidro (on Harry Kemelman, author of the Rabbi novels and the ingenious Nicky Welt short stories) and the tireless Marv Lachman, and reviews by the ultra-knowledgeable Charles Shibuk.

The journal is published three times a year, and if you like classic mysteries, it is well worth a look. Further details are available from

Monday, 6 October 2008

Off to Baltimore

By the time you read this, I will (I hope) be jetting off to Baltimore. I say 'I hope', because I am not only capable of messing up my travel arrangements, I have a rather sorry history of actually doing so. Sometimes, however, the mishap can have a happy ending, as when a foul-up over a family holiday ultimately resulted in my writing 'The Bookbinder's Apprentice', which went on to win the CWA award.

I've scheduled daily posts for the duration of my absence, but although I may be slow in moderating comments, I hope that won't stop you from keeping them coming.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

No Alibi

Apart from London in 1990, the only other time Bouchercon was held in England was in 1995, when the location was Nottingham. By this time, I’d published several novels and I enjoyed not only moderating a panel but becoming more widely involved.

One stand-out experience was that Gllian Linscott and Stephen Murray invited me to join up with them in a performance at the theatre of a script they had written about the detectives and the detective story. It was a very good script, and quite an honour to be involved. Both Gill and Stephen were and are excellent writers. Lately Gill has reinvented herself as Caro Peacock. I’m sorry to say that Stephen has not published crime fiction for several years, but I hope he will return to the fray in due course.

In the 1990s, Maxim Jakubowski organised a number of successful ‘Shots on the Page’ crime conventions in Nottingham and he was also the organising genius (or one of them) behind the Bouchercon. One of his clever ideas was to edit an anthology of stories linked to the convention. It was called No Alibi and it appeared no fewer than three separate editions – including a limited edition, signed by all the contributors, which I cherish. The book included not only a story of mine but also the work of great names such as Rankin, Hoch, Block, McDermid, Harvey and Robinson.

Incidentally, I've added two very good blogs to the blogroll. Criminal Brief is a collective effort, featuring among others the American crime expert Steve Steinbock, whom I hope to meet at Bouchercon. And The Shadow Walker is the work of Michael Walters, who unlike Steve lives quite close to me - but as yet, we haven't met....

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Illumination in Blackpool

Thursday evening saw my last event of 2008, other than panels at Bouchercon next week. Blackpool Central Library was the scene of another version of 'Who Killed George Hargrave?' and, despite a night of driving rain, the audience packed the room to capacity.

After the event was over, with the rain continuing to fall, I drove back along the Promenade, past the famous Tower, and through the Illuminations. A visit to Blackpool Illuminations was a treat when I was young, and to this day the resort ploughs a vast amount of investment into prolonging the holiday season with ever-changing Illuminations. But of course they are seen at their best in reasonable weather - in short supply this autumn.

Blackpool would be a terrific place in which to set a thriller (I recall Val McDermid describing Las Vegas to me as 'Blackpool without the beach'.) It's been done before, of course, and a book called Candyfloss Coast by Barbara Crossley, a charming person who lived near Blackpool and whose crime writing career was regrettably short, comes to mind.

I've staged the Victorian Murder Mystery in a variety of intriguing places this year, including my home library of Lymm. There were truly enjoyable visits to places like Wallasey and Ashton, as well as a tour of the North East in spring. Perhaps the most perfect setting for the event was the Lit and Phil Library in Newcsstle - an amazing venue.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Forgotten Book - Bat out of Hell

My latest entry in Patti Abbott's series Friday's Forgotten Books is a little-known gem of suspense, Bat out of Hell by Francis Durbridge.

First published in 1972, this book was a novelisation of a five-part serial aired on BBC TV in November and December 1966. I watched the original serial at a tender age and found it very enjoyable – it benefited from a tightly woven screenplay and excellent performances from John Thaw and Sylvia Syms as the doomed conspirators, and Dudley Foster as the shrewd detective. My expectations of the book were, however, low: few novelisations make good reading and even Durbridge’s original novels were patchy compared to his work for stage and screen.

So it was all the more pleasing to discover that the ingenious twists I remembered from all those years ago were just as expertly handled in the book, which I would rate as the best Durbridge I have read. Perhaps the reason why the story works so well is that, unlike most Durbridge mysteries, this is an ‘inverted’ tale, a terrific spin on the type of story that Austin Freeman devised and that other Golden Age writers such as Roy Vickers and, occasionally, Freeman Wills Crofts developed.

The added value comes from a startling series of cliff-hangers in the finest Durbridge tradition. Mark Paxton and Diana Stewart are lovers who concoct a plot to kill Diana’s husband Geoffrey. Murder is committed – but then Geoffrey’s body disappears and the dead man telephones Diana to warn her to identify another corpse as his. It is a terrific premise and further shocks follow at regular intervals. Very clever.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

London 1990

I mentioned that my first Bouchercon was back in 1990, when it was held in London, at University College. I wasn’t a published writer in those days, though my first novel was with publishers, and it was accepted not long afterwards. So I wasn’t eligible to join any panels and I attended as a fan.

It was a fascinating experience, even though the quality of the venue did leave something to be desired. I recall endless corridors and some rather impersonal lecture theatres below ground level One American writer (can’t remember his name) raised the biggest laugh of the weekend by paying tribute to the students of London, who appeared to be required to sit through lectures without the benefit of oxygen

Even so, it was tremendous fun. I participated in ‘Mastermind’ style quiz organised by Maxim Jakubowski, whom I’d never met before, and to my surprise I won it. One of my fellow contestants was Tony Medawar, one of the most incisive researchers into obscure detective fiction history and a thoroughly agreeable chap who – it’s a small world – later became my wife’s boss in the Civil Service.

One of the newly published writers I bumped into at the convention was Patricia D. Cornwell. By coincidence, I’d just read her debut novel, Post Mortem, and enjoyed it. We had a pleasant chat and she inscribed the book for me with great enthusiasm. Needless to say, I’ve followed her subsequent rather eventful career with much interest…

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Cover Art

The artwork for the cover of Dancing for the Hangman is very different from that for my other books. The publishers, Flambard, are keen to make it clear that this is a different sort of novel, and although my initial reaction to the cover was mixed, it is growing on me. The artwork is by an artist called Harry Holt and it is called ‘Sand Ridge’.

I’d be interested in views (though if they are negative, it’s too late!) because the question of cover art always intrigues me and I’m still not really sure what makes a great book cover.

Here is a link to the relevant Flambard page:

Flmbard Press - Dancing For The Hangman