Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Crimefest 2012

I’m just back from a few days away, spent in a very sunny Bristol. The main focus of the trip was Crimefest 2012, and the organisers did an excellent job, as ever, with the result that this year’s convention was perhaps the best so far – and I’ve enjoyed them all.

On Thursday I moderated , once again, the panel on Forgotten Authors. Peter Guttridge, Caroline Todd, John Curran and Dolores Gordon-Smith did a great job in enthusing the audience for a range of writers, including Helen McCloy (who is definitely on my must-read list), Ira Levin and R.Austin Freeman. I’m really pleased this panel is so popular  - in fact, I’ve been asked to moderate it yet again next year...

My second panel was on Sunday. This time Peter was the moderator and our theme was “past and present”. Tom Harper, Penny Hancock (whom I hadn’t met before, a very pleasant lady who has made a big splash with her debut novel) and Kate Ellis were my fellow panellists.  Great fun.

Peter featured yet again in the Mastermind quiz – and this year, he was the winner, pipping Peter Rozovsky by the narrowest of margins. Rhian Davies, a blogger of note, and Jake Kerridge, one of our most knowledgeable reviewers, were the other contestants, and all of them deserve congratulation: sitting in that black chair can be a real ordeal, believe me.

On a personal level, I was thrilled that no fewer than four stories which have appeared in books I have edited were short-listed for the CWA Short Story Dagger. My warmest congratulations to Cath Staincliffe, Margaret Murphy, Claire Seeber and Bernie Crosthwaite. Of course, the greatest joy was to meet old friends and make new ones, and my abiding memories will include a host of fascinating conversations with people who –whatever their differences of background – share a love of crime fiction.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Third Man

Watching Carol Reed’s superb 1949 film The Third Man again, not long after reading Eric Ambler’s novel of ten years earlier, The Mask of  Dimitrios, I was struck by the similarities between the novel and Graham Greene’s screenplay. Both feature an apparently dead villain whose story is sought after by a rather naive popular novelist, and the two story-lines develop (despite many differences) in a broadly comparable way.

There can be little doubting Ambler’s influence on Greene, yet The Third Man remains a distinctive and enjoyable piece of work, and it is, I think, a very good example of how one story-teller can properly borrow from another, and yet still make his work very much his own. 

The setting in post-war Vienna is highly atmospheric, and of course the famous sewer sequence, as well as the scenes shot near to the Wiener Reisenrad, which long pre-dates The Millennium Wheel, are intensely memorable. The cinematography is complemented by Anton Karas’ zither music, and “The Harry Lime Theme” became an international hit.

Greene’s narrative has plenty of pleasing twists and turns, as well as a downbeat ending, and he and director Carol Reed are extremely well served by the cast. This includes those British stalwarts Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee and Wilfred Hyde-White, as well as Joseph Cotten and, best of all, Orson Welles. It is, at heart, a story about friendship and betrayal, and is a first rate example of how a tale that is very much of its time can nevertheless stand the test of time.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Forgotten Book - The Grindle Nightmare

My Forgotten Book today is The Grindle Nightmare, by Quentin Patrick, and I have to thank John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books for not only calling it to my attention, but also supplying me with a copy. Very kind of him, and, I must say, typical of the kindness which, I have found, abounds among crime bloggers and fans.

The book was first published in 1935, and was one of two books which Richard Wilson Webb, an Englishman born (like Robert Barnard) in the Essex town of Burnham, and an American journalist, Mary Louise Aswell, wrote under the pseudonym (used almost interchangeably with the name Q.Patrick – the name Patrick Quentin was used extensively in later years). Webb had earlier written with another woman, Martha Mott Kelley, but his major collaborator was Hugh Wheeler, another Englishman who eventually became famous for writing the book of musicals such as A Little Night Music.

The setting is a rather remote New England valley called Grindle, and a helpful map is supplied in true Golden Age tradition. But Grindle isn’t St Mary Mead, but a place where dark and disturbing things are happening. Animals are being mistreated, and then a young girl disappears. The narrator is a young scientist, Dr Doug Swanson, who shares his home with a fellow doctor; their work involves vivisection. Suffice to say that nobody in their right mind would call this book “cosy”. It is very dark by any standards, but especially for the time when it was written. Not one for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure.

The plot is complicated, and a genuine whodunit puzzle is supplied. Mention is made of a very famous real life American murder case, which may have been a source of some inspiration for the device at the heart of the narrative. But this is a book unlike any others of its period that I have read – and it really is memorable. Short, snappy, chilling and clever, it deserves to be much better known.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski’s film based on the Robert Harris novel The Ghost, is a very enjoyable thriller. Harris is a master of the high concept thriller (I like Enigma best of his earlier books) and this story draws heavily on his interest in the lives and careers of his friends (but are they still friends, after this?) Tony and Cherie Blair.

Ewan McGregor plays a ghost writer who is hired for an enormous fee to do a rush job – sprucing up the memoirs of a recent Prime Minister. He is flown out to meet the great man (played  by the ultra-charismatic Pierce Brosnan), his wife (Olivia Williams) and his sexy aide – and mistress – a role tailor-made for the stunning Kim Cattrall. But his predecessor has died in mysterious circumstances, and soon the plot thickens.

I was surprised that the story moved, for the most part, at a fairly slow pace, but it warms up steadily and develops into a quite gripping story, especially when our hero starts to discover clues to a sinister truth in the manuscript his predecessor was working on at the time of his death.

Tom Wilkinson, appearing late in the movie, plays a key part as a sinister professor with CIA connections, and does his usual impressive job. I was also very taken with Olivia Williams’ subtle portrayal of a wronged but manipulative wife. Overall, a very enjoyable movie which I can recommend.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Lewis: The Soul of Genius

The Soul of Genius, with a screenplay by Rachel Bennette, was the first instalment of the new series of Lewis, shown last week. By a happy coincidence, it was screened just before I set off for a week-end in Oxford, and very enjoyable it was too.

Writing for Lewis must, I suspect, be both easy and difficult at the same time. Easy because the basic infrastructure – the characters and setting – are so strong and appealing. Difficult because it is so hard to avoid the trap of formula. I thought Rachel Bennette – not a writer I’m familiar with – rose to the challenge superbly. It’s one of the best crime screenplays I’ve watched for a long time.

I say this even though she used two plot elements – one of them to do with “The Hunting of the Snark”, the other a particular kind of club – that I’ve played around with myself in the past, without doing anything much with them. I felt she used them very cleverly. I feared she was going to come up with the familiar ploy of having the killer turn out to be someone the cop fancied. But her solution was neat and unexpected. Very good.

As for Oxford in real life, it was as enchanting as ever. Among the highlights was a trip to the revamped and deeply impressive Ashmolean Museum. The younger Edwardses are both due to face exams shortly. But the exams, however difficult they may prove to be, are a small price to pay for living such a privileged existence for three years. And thankfully there aren't so many murders there in real life as there are in fiction. 

(By the way, Blogger still isn't letting me upload photos - is anyone else suffering similarly?)

Friday, 18 May 2012

Forgotten Book - Cain's Jawbone

My forgotten book for today is actually entitled The Torquemada Puzzle Book. It is described on the title page as a "miscellany" of original crosswords, acrostics, anagrams, verbal pastimes and problems, etc, but also includes Cain's Jawbone, "a Torquemada Mystery Novel." And suffice to say, I've never encountered a mystery novel like it.

But who was Torquemada? The pseudonym concealed the identity of Edward Powys Mathers, who compiled crosswords for "The Observer" for 13 years. His puzzles were noted for their fiendish complexity, and although so far I have only tried one or two, suffice to say that I think his reputation and pseudonym are well-earned.

Cain's Jawbone is really a novella. The twist is that the pages are not in the right order. The challenge is to work out the correct page sequence. Easy? Not at all, trust me on this. The snag is that the story is told in a strange and mannered style which makes it almost impossible to work out what is going on.

A prize was offered to whoever could solve it. Apparently only three people got it right, and I'm rather surprised it was that many! Suffice to say that it defeated me with ease. Alas, the solution is not included in the book, which must have driven many of its purchasers to distraction. No wonder this 1934 book had no successors. But it's certainly remarkable. And it could just provoke someone to murder....

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Cop to Corpse by Peter Lovesey

What is the biggest writing challenge facing an established crime writer? (There are various challenges not directly linked to writing, such as the state of the market, relationships with publishers and so on, but that’s a topic for another day.) My answer to the question I’ve posed is this: the challenge of ensuring that one’s work remains fresh and varied, and that the dictates of formula don’t have a deadening effect.

It’s perhaps a challenge that is faced most acutely by established and highly successful authors. They have succeeded by writing a particular kind of story, so there is a temptation to keep writing it. The temptation is all the greater when a series enjoys commercial success. Those novelists whom I admire most are those who have the courage to keep trying something new, even within the apparent strait-jacket of a series with continuing characters.

Peter Lovesey is one writer who rises to the challenge time and again. I’m tempted to say he does so effortlessly, but I’m sure that the smooth readability of his books (like those of another superb entertainer, the late Michael Gilbert whose work I also enjoy enormously) disguises a great deal of effort and hard work.

His latest novel, Cop to Corpse, is an excellent example of his ability to ring the changes. This is another in his long-running series featuring Peter Diamond, the Bath-based cop, but it is rather darker in tone than many of the earlier books in the series, even though police office politics does provide some light relief. The structure is unusual.  The first couple of chapters are told in the present tense, and the main narrative is interspersed with lengthy blog posts written by a youngish woman.

The plot, which involves the killing of three policemen, and an attack on a fourth (plus an attack on Diamond) is extremely elaborate. As a result, the book is longer than some of Lovesey’s earlier books, but the quality of writing remains high. The story may be unorthodox, but it is certainly entertaining, and proof – were it needed – that one of Britain’s most distinguished mystery novelists is still as good at keeping us guessing as ever. Long may he continue to entertain his many fans.

(Please note, the comments contain a spoiler about the previous book in the series.)

Monday, 14 May 2012

You Couldn't Make It Up

The first full-length novel I ever wrote was a thriller about football and it rejoiced in the title Dead Shot. I wrote it over two years after leaving university; I couldn’t afford to get it all typed, and I never sent it to a publisher. Probably just as well, as I soon realised it wasn’t good enough to be published. But I learned a lot from the experience, not least that, whatever literary talent I might lack, I did at least have the stamina and persistence to put together a novel of around 70,000 words. And that knowledge kept me going until I found a publisher for All the Lonely People  a decade later.

Why a football novel? Well, I grew up in a football-mad household ; my late father was obsessed about the game, and spent the last ten years of his life, at times in great pain when suffering from cancer, writing a book, A Team for All Seasons, about the club he loved – which finally got published, just before he died. I’m prouder of his achievement, as a man who left school at 14 and had no real formal education, than I am of any of my own books. 

Over the years, I’ve written a few short stories which feature football, including one called “Penalty” which was a sort of tribute to my father’s team. But I’ve never written another football novel. I keep thinking someone else will write a really good football thriller one day, but I have to say that the soccer-based novels I have read over the years have been more Unibond League standard than in the Dick Francis league.

But sometimes fact goes far beyond what is credible in fiction. And yesterday has to be one of those days, when Manchester City – a team I started supporting out of sympathy when they were bottom of the league, an experience they have repeated several times since – won the Premier League in the most dramatic and extraordinary circumstances. I’ve never been so enthralled by any sporting occasion  As I think all the pundits have agreed, you really couldn’t make it up.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Forgotten Book - The Verdict of You All

Henry Wade’s debut novel, The Verdict of You All, is my choice for today’s Forgotten Book. It was first published in 1926 (or perhaps 1927 – sources vary) and it marked the start of a career in crime writing that was to last for thirty years. I’ve long believed that Wade has never received his due as a novelist, and I’m glad that the era of blogs and social networking has revealed that other fans take a similar view.

By any standards that we can fairly apply to Golden Age mysteries, this is a very good book, and for a first novel it’s truly exceptional. It combines a wide range of elements, perhaps most notably sound police procedure and a good trial scene, but the final ironic twist is worthy of Anthony Berkeley or Richard Hull.

A point I’d like to make about Wade’s writing is that it was distinguished by a warmth and humanity that is absent from many Golden Age mysteries. Wade was, in real life, almost a caricature of the conventional “officer and gentleman”, a soldier, high sheriff, and baronet who wrote a history of the Foot Guards. But he also had an understanding of people that wasn’t confined to his own class. You get the impressione consistently in his work of a thoroughly decent man.

That being so, I suppose I must add that, in straining for a very clever resolution to his mystery, Wade took one or two liberties with his characters that didn’t ring quite true. With most Golden Age writers and books, this was par for the course, and wouldn’t be an issue – I only mention it because Wade achieved such a high standard, that he has to be judged quite strictly. Overall, though, my verdict is that this is a first rate mystery that deserves to be resurrected. It has stood the test of time.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


I’ve watched Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rope again, for the first time in twenty-five years, and found myself admiring it rather more at a second viewing than I did originally. The film dates from 1948 and was based on a play written almost two decades earlier by Patrick Hamilton. The play in turn was inspired by the true crime case of Leopold and Loeb.

At the start of the film, two young aesthetes strangle a friend to death – they want to commit the perfect murder as a sort of experiment. John Dall and Farley Granger play Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan; Brandon is the leader, Phillip the weak link. Brandon amuses himself by arranging a party to be attended by their luckless victim’s father and girlfriend., while the body is kept inside a chest from which refreshments are served. He also invites his former teacher Rupert Cadell, played by James Stewart, with whom he’d talked in the past about Nietzsche and the idea of the perfect crime.

Needless to say, there’s really nothing very perfect about Brandon’s plan, and I suppose that on first viewing I felt a bit frustrated because the story-line and its development seemed relatively obvious. Watching it again, in more tolerant mood, I did admire the way Hitchcock built the tension. His long camera takes, and the idea of a movie story told in real time are much admired by film buffs, but although it’s not a masterpiece when compared to his best work, it’s still very watchable.

The Leopold and Loeb case is a truly extraordinary one, which has sourced other works of crime fiction. And it’s interesting that Hitchcock used a play by Hamilton – I’m rather sorry that he never adapted Hamilton’s books about Gorse for the silver screen, though those stories were eventually transformed, in the late 1980s, into a good TV series, The Charmer.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Perez is Coming!

Great news was announced officially yesterday - to much rejoicing among her fellow members of Murder Squad! Ann Cleeves is to see her Shetland series featuring that very likeable cop Jimmy Perez made into a television series, with a two-parter starring that estimable actor Douglas Henshall. If it's as successful as Vera has been, we are really in for a treat.

More information is to be found on Ann's website.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Bank Holiday Books

I’ve mentioned The Mystery Press (an imprint of The History Press) before, and this Bank Holiday Monday, I’d like to highlight a couple of the crime novelists on their list, as well as mentioning a true crime book published by Quercus.

Janet Laurence, who chaired the CWA a few years back, is one of the most charming of crime writers, and her Darina Lisle culinary mysteries won her a considerable following some time ago. She later wrote an excellent book about the craft of mystery writing, but there haven’t been any crime novels from her for a while. Happily, that has now changed, with the appearance of Deadly Inheritance, a book set in that fascinating period, the Edwardian era. The protagonist is Ursula Grandison, an American who comes to Britain and finds herself embroiled in a mystery surrounding the death of a nursemaid.  Janet is a stylish writer, and I’m sure this novel will find favour not only with existing fans but also historical mystery lovers who may not be familiar with her work.

Linda Stratmann, a more recent arrival on the scene, is an expert on true crime who wrote an excellent book about chloroform and has turned with success to fiction. A follow-up to The Poisonous Seed, in which young Frances Doughty turned detective to solve her father’s murder, has now appeared. In The Daughters of Gentlemen, Frances has turned her detective work into an embryonic career – she contemplates advertising: “Lady detective. Discretion assured.” An enquiry about the distribution of feminist pamphlets duly turns into a lively murder mystery. Both books contain a note at the end, explaining the factual elements of the story , and I always find these interesting. History-mysteries have an enduring appeal, I think.

Very different, yet almost a slice of modern history in itself, is The Curse of Brink’s-Mat, by veteran true crime writer Wensley Clarkson. The sub-title is “25 years of murder and mayhem”, and I must say I was fascinated to learn what unpleasant fates have befallen so many people who were involved in this celebrated heist. But one of the gang members who survived is, of course, the notorious Kenneth Noye. At present, however, Noye remains in prison, having failed in an appeal against his conviction for killing the motorist Stephen Cameron. All in all, it’s a remarkable story which Clarkson tells in a lively, journalistic way.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Forgotten Book - Rex v Rhodes

I've mentioned Bruce Hamilton once or twice in passing in previous blog posts, sometimes in relation to his much more celebrated brother Patrick. I see, though, that I've never devoted a full post to this under-estimated writer, even though I find his work very interesting. So today I'm rectifying this omission by discussing Rex v. Rhodes, which he published in 1937.

The sub-title of this book is "The Brighton Murder Trial", and it is presented as being edited by Hamilton. The idea is to ape the style of the Famous Trials series that was very popular in the first half of the 20th century in Britain. The series had introductions which were often highly informative, and Hamilton's intro makes it clear that he is setting the book a few years in the future. He envisages a situation where, increasingly, there is conflict between the forces of the left and the extreme right, and although he makes it clear that ultimately the Communists will prevail, the events of the story take place at a time when they are under sustained attack, not just from fascist groups, but also from the establishment.

The man on trial, Rhodes, is a Communist, and he is accused of killing a leader of the Brighton branch of a right-wing group. The main evidence against him - which seems damning - comes from two young, and possibly thuggish, men who worked for the victim. Hamilton makes it reasonably clear early on what has actually happened. The key question is whether Rhodes will survive the trial process.

In some ways, this book is - at least to my knowledge - unique. A sort of futuristic fantasy, presented as a sober courtroom drama, with an intense political message. It's a book with some flaws, but I found it fascinating. Hamilton, in later years, realised that he'd misunderstood the nature of Communism, and the naivete of some of his opinions and forecasts is breathtaking. But he was certainly not alone in the mid-30s in holding the views he did, and even though I don't usually care for didactic fiction, this book holds great interest as a historical curiosity.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Oh, Blogger! The Missing Comments Mystery

I've been contacted by someone who has often posted fascinating comments on this blog - to cut a long story short, his comments recently have been disappearing into my spam folder, without any obvious cause. I'm not aware that anyone else has suffered similarly, but if the same thing has happened to you, on this or another blog, please do let me know. The problem seemed to begin in early April.

The commenter is on Wordpress, but that doesn't seem to be the reason why the comments have gone AWOL. It's a mystery, as he says, that might demand the investigation techinques of Hannah Scarlett to solve! But if anyone has any idea what could explain this little puzzle, we'd be glad to know.

And I'm extremely grateful, by the way, to my correspondent for letting me know and not just assuming that I had, for some weird reason, decided not to approve his comments. I've often published comments I don't agree with, and I certainly have no intention of censoring anyone who expresses reasonable views in a civilised fashion, whether or not I share those views. Once or twice, though, I have deleted comments through sheer personal incompetence. But I don't intend to make a habit of this!

Maybe the problem is something to do with the way Blogger operates? I just don't know, but as I mentioned yesterday, I was very frustrated when the system refused to upload Judith's picture of Kate Stacey and myself. Technology, eh?

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Southampton Conference

The week-end before last saw the annual conference of the Crime Writers’ Association, an event which moves around the country, and this year was held at Southampton. I first attended the conference when it was held in Scarborough back in 1988, and since then I’ve missed very few.

The conference is a good chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones – among the latter, I was glad to meet Rosemary Rowe and Nicola Slade at the Gala Dinner, and also to meet Dick Francis’s son Felix. We kicked off with a mayoral reception in an impressive new museum with a maritime theme. And there are always some interesting talks – the topics covered included Saxon burial sites in Hampshire, marine policing and local murder cases. Felix also gave a fascinating talk about his father, and the “family business” of thriller writing.

I’ve never looked round Southampton before, and on an all too brief Saturday afternoon walk around the city, I was rather taken with the place – lots of greenery in the city centre, a good waterfront and quite a bit of history, including the remains of the city walls. And inevitably I popped in on one of the various exhibitions inspired by the centenary of the launching of the Titanic.

All in all, then, a most enjoyable experience. Organising a conference, though, is very hard work. I once organised a weekend for the Northern Chapter of the CWA, and that was demanding enough – sorting out a much bigger event and making sure all goes smoothly is a real challenge. So a special mention for organiser Kate Stacey, who did a great job (and thanks to Judith Cutler, who took a picture of us together which so far Blogger has refused to let me upload...).

And finally, congratulations to Peter James, elected to chair the CWA for another year.