Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Montenegro - and Nero Wolfe

Montenegro isn't a country I'd associate with classic detective fiction - at least so I thought, until I remembered belatedly that one of the great sleuths of American mystery fiction hailed from Montenegro. This was Nero Wolfe, who featured in many novels written by Rex Stout. I've only read one or two of them, though, and I can't remember Montenegro featuring. It's years since I tried Stout - I was a bit underwhelmed with the widely admired Some Buried Caesar - and perhaps it's time to give him another go.

All this is by way of preamble to my last bit of reminiscence about last week's Adriatic cruise. The final port of call was a place called Kotor, which I must admit I'd never heard of. It is situated, rather idyllically, at the end of what is sometimes called Europe's southernmost fjord. In fact, it's a river canyon, but however you describe it, there's no denying that it's breathtakingly lovely.

Kotor is a small walled town with a long and notable history. Monttenegro only declared independence about six years ago, but in one guise or another, this little bit of Europe has played a part in much of the continent's history. Today, it's a place where tourism offers the potential for a brighter, and more peaceful future. The idea of a "wine and book shop" certainly deserves to catch on in my opinion, though sadly they didn't stock any Nero Wolfes.

Testament to Kotor's history of getting embroiled in warfare is the walled fortress at the top of the cliff that looms above the town. I started walking up to the fortress without having any real idea of how far away it was. By the time I'd begun to realise, it felt as though it would be wrong to turn back, so I carried on to the top. Apparently there are roughly 1350 steps from the town to the top, a climb that took about an hour, but believe me, I was too busy trying to get my breath back to count. At least the stunning views made it absolutely worthwhile.

I didn't see any reference to Nero Wolfe in Kotor. Maybe he didn't come from that part of the country. But who knows? One of these days Montenegro may have its own Wolfe trail. Nero might even do for the place what Morse did for Oxford. In the meantime, the beauty of the place is a more than good enough reason to visit it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

History and Dubrovnik

In an excellent article for The Guardian a couple of days ago, Mark Lawson wrote that; "One of the functions of fiction is to serve as a kind of tourism, either showing us places, situations and people that we might not otherwise reach or scrolling through snapshots of events or sensations that we remember." This is a very well made point, and it struck a real chord with me after my return from the Adriatic, and especially in relation to my visit to Dubrovnik.

I first went to Dubrovnik almost a quarter of a century ago. It was an impressive place, but my main, if rather hazy, recollection, is of a sense of regulation and limitation, imposed by the state machine of the time - in those days, Dubrovnik was part of Communist Yugoslavia. Since then, it was besieged during the terrible war with Serbia, and the marks of that war can still be seen if you look around. But the over-riding impression I had, not least from talking to a young taxi driver, was of a place which has been liberated from tyranny and which is loving that liberation.

If Venice is my favourite foreign city, Dubrovnik is now probably not far behind. It really looked fantastic in the sun, and we tried to cram as much as possible into a day's visit This meant an hour's trip in a glass-bottomed boat, a walk around the full length of the incredible city walls, and a cable car ride - three different perspectives on one of the most photogenic places I've visited.

I think if you know a little about the history of a place, it enhances the experience, and that's true even of somewhere as intrinsically and obviously attractive as Dubrovnik. I read a deeply felt message written by one of the residents whose home had been devastated during the war, and it was impossible not to feel a real sense of horror about what was done to innocent people within our lifetime. Our visit coincided with various Independence celebrations,and it was easy to understand why, given what they have endured, the people of the city have embraced capitalism (with all its faults) and are even looking forward to being part of the Eurozone (which I suppose could prove even more of a mixed blessing.).

It's because I believe that history matters, and that it is good to try to learn from history and experience, so as to try not to repeat the mistakes of the past, that I chose a historian as the male protagonist of the Lake District Mysteries. The series is intended to be very much about the Lakes in the21st century - but every book, and every story-line is informed by the past. And it's because of this interest in history that, as I walked the walls of Dubrovnik, I tried to imagine what Daniel Kind would make of the city. I reckon he'd like it as much as I do.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Exploring the Adriatic

I've been away for a week on a cruise of the Adriatic, a chance to unwind in some truly marvellous places, and also to catch up on some reading. The day before my departure I was sent three of the latest titles in the Arcturus Crime Classics series, and I enjoyed reading these as well as a brand new best-seller and an excellent psychological suspense novel from the 70s, written by someone who achieved fame in another genre. Reviews of each of these enjoyable books will appear on this blog in due course.

The cruise set off from Corfu, a delightful island. I haven't read any crime novels set there (though I'm sure there must be some.) The next stop was Koper, in Slovenia, a country I'd never visited before. Are there any Slovenian crime novels, I wonder? I was greatly impressed by this small yet entrancing old town, but above all by a tour which took us to a resort not far away, Piran - a very beautiful place indeed. To my shame, perhaps, I'd never heard of either Piran or Koper,and this stop was a reminder of how many wonderful parts of the world there are that I'm simply not aware of. The snag of course is that life is too short to get to know more than a selection of them.

Venice, the next destination, is a city everyone has heard of. This was my fourth visit, and I love the city more than anywhere else overseas. I enjoyed having another look in the window of the bookbinder's shop that gave me the inspiration for "The Bookbinder's Apprentice", the short story which won a Dagger four years ago. And the sheer mysteriousness of Venice remains, for me, part of its appeal. One of my favourite films, the uniquely sinister Don't Look Now, was set there.

After that came Split, in Croatia. This is another increasingly popular destination, and again I found it fascinating. It's remarkable to think that, just 20 years or so ago, this was an area riven by war. Thankfully, the disputes that fuelled all the bloodshed seem - to a casual outsider, certainly - to have been resolved. Tourism is one of the means by which the area has got back on its feet. I'll post tomorrow about a visit to another Croatian city that I found truly memorable, and which made me think more about history and historians (and so, inevitably, about Daniel Kind's take on life, and the idea of historians as detectives that lurks in the background of the Lake District Mysteries.).

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Jacques Barzun R.I.P.

There's an excellent tribute on Curt Evans' blog to Jacques Barzun, who has died at the ripe old age of 104. Curt says most of the things I'd like to mention about Barzun,a crtic of whom I first became aware through reading Julian Symons' Bloody Murder. Symons disagreed with Barzun about many aspects of crime fiction, but I'm certain both men had a great deal of respect for each other.

A Catalogue of Crime is a fascinating reference work, and long ago I invested in both editions. Barzun and his collaborator Taylor comment on many books that were otherwise ignored in reference works about detective fiction, and I suspect they would be delighted to know that "forgotten books" of the type they enjoyed are finally emerging from obscurity thanks to digital publishing and internet commentaries. It is, mind you, an idiosyncratic text, and like all reference books it contains the occasional howler (such as locating Knutsford in Ireland). But it's a terrific book to dip into, and one I strongly recommend.

One does not have to agree with all (or even most) of what Barzun wrote about the genre to recognise the value and importance of his contribution to crime fiction criticism. His love of classic detective fiction became unfashionable, but - even though I'm more in the Symons camp in many ways - I think that the best of the books that he lauded will endure for as long as crime fiction is read, and his acute assessments of many of those books will remain indispensable not only for confirmed Golden Age fans but also for others who come to recognise the merits of the classic mystery, as well as its potential limitations - a group that is, I sense, growing quite rapidly, something of which Barzun would surely have approved.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Chris Simms - guest blog

I first met Chris Simms at an author event in Stockport, organised by the late lamented Borders bookstore, a few years back.Another local writer, Kate Ellis, was also with us, but as the event was - shall we say? - modestly attended, we soon repaired to a nearby pub to drown our sorrows and have a chat. Most enjoyable it was, too.

At that time, Chris had only published one book, but I felt from that first encounter that his zest and drive were such that he was someone who would make rapid progress in the crime fiction world, and so it proved. I'm really glad that recently both he and Kate have joined Murder Squad, the group of Northern crime writers formed by Margaret Murphy back in 2000. The Squad's very first event, by the way, was also hosted by Borders UK, and drew a good crowd; I'm afraid, though, that by the time of the Stockport event, the writing was on the wall for the chain - a shame, especially for their enthusiastic staff.

Chris' latest novel, Scratch Deeper, came out yesterday. It is published by Severn House.(whose list now includes a good many stellar names) and to celebrate I invited him to contribute a guest post to this blog. Here it is:

"The other day I found myself thinking; they’re at it again, those crafty little fellows in the Foreign Office. Up to the same old tricks they’ve used so many times before.

You may also have spotted the news story of how the High Court has given leave for three members of the Mau Mau to sue the British government for torturing them back in the 1950s. The Foreign Office immediately announced its intention to appeal on the grounds that it can’t be held accountable for crimes committed by a government from half a century ago.

Funny that,: seeing as the only reason it has taken this long is because the Foreign Office (backed by successive administrations from the 1950s onward) have delayed, stalled and thwarted the Kenyans’ fight for justice anyway they could. (Including the wholesale destruction of colonial records supporting the Kenyans’ claims of torture being used on an industrial scale – including castration and savage beatings.)

But this is an author blog, so why am I banging on about it? Only because I touched on the Mau Mau issue in a previous novel called Savage Moon. That, however, isn’t the reason for writing this blog.

I wanted to point out something relating to the here and now. You see, our government – Labour, Tory or Coalition – continues to try and project power in foreign places in the hope of influencing how that country’s resources are exploited. (The fertile Kenyan highlands provided cheap food to post-war Britain.) Numerous human rights abuses are committed round the world as a result. So I wonder, in another fifty years’ time, will the Foreign Office be responding to claims by Iraqis or Libyans that it can’t be held accountable for crimes committed by a government from half a century ago?

I suspect they will. After all, it’s a trick they’ve used so many times before."


Friday, 26 October 2012

Forgotten Book - The Death Wish

Elizabeth Sanxay Holding is quite a memorable name, and she was quite a memorable writer, yet she is one of many talented practitoners of the past who nowadays suffer a considerable degree of neglect.  However, I know that Ed Gorman, one of the most knowledgeable of today's commentators on American crime fiction (as well as one of its most entertaining exponents) is a big fan of Holding, and I was prompted to read The Death Wish, my Forgotten Book for today, by a review on John Norris's superb blog, which constantly draws attention to neglected work of genuine quality.

John made the point in his insightful comments that, although published in 1935, this book was in some ways rather ahead of its time, given the focus on the psychological motivations of the characters.The key players are two men, an artist called Robert Whitestone and his friend Shawe Delancey, both of whom are  unhappily married. A very attractive young woman called Elsie falls for Robert, and the consequences prove to be tragic.

Holding had written a number of novels in the romance genre before she turned to crime, and I felt this was evident in her approach to the story. There isn't a great deal of action, and there were times when the behaviour and conversations of Elsie and others was rather over-wrought, to the point where I almost became irritated, in particular with Elsie. The plot didn't seem to me to be strong enough to compensate fully for this.

And yet despite my reservations, there was something about the novel that held my attention, and I certainly agree that, for its time, it was quite a notable piece of work. I didn't care for it as much as, say, Helen McCloy's debut, published three years later, but I suspect that at this point in her career, Holding was to some extent feeling her way, pushing out the boundaries in the way that talented and innovative writers do. I suspect her later books show further development, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Dry Bones That Dream

Dry Bones That Dream is a Peter Robinson novel featuring DCI Alan Banks, recently brought to television by Stephen Tompkinson, which I haven’t read. It's showing in the DCI Banks series this evening, but at present I'm away and out of reach of the TV. However, I recently listened to an abridged audio version, read by Neil Pearson. I like Pearson as an actor, and he does an excellent job as a reader. I’m not sure if he was considered for the TV role, but he would have made a good fist of it, I think, though in a different way from Stephen Tompkinson.

Two masked men visit the home of a wealthy accountant, and murder him. This is fiction, although I have a vague recollection of a real-life case where something similar happened some years ago. What is the motive for the crime? As Banks investigates, it becomes clear that the dead man had secrets in both his personal life and his business dealings.

When a former colleague from Scotland Yard becomes involved, Banks discovers that the crime has an international element. At one stage, I thought the story was in danger of becoming thrillerish, but this didn’t happen. It is, in essence, a conventional police novel, with a plot twist that would not have been out of place in the Golden Age, and which I thought was excellent. It's an example of why Peter Robinson has established himself as one of the leading mystery novelists..

Truncated audio books are not, in theory, the best way to sample a writer’s work, but this one was good entertainment. Even if I were not a long-term Robinson fan, I would have found it enjoyable. As with many good series, you don’t really need to begin at the beginning, and this story isn’t a bad place to start if you haven’t yet encountered Banks. I look forward to catching up with the TV version soon.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Finishing a Novel

I'm close to finishing my latest Lake District Mystery - which is just as well, as delivery date to my American publishers is 1 November.. The title is The Frozen Shroud, and it's the sixth book in the series. I reached the end of the last chapter a short while ago, but since then I've been working hard at improving the manuscript. The Hanging Wood earned terrific reviews, and I'm anxious at the very least to maintain that standard..

Revision is, for me, a crucial part of the process. Although, to an extent, I try to improve what I write as I go along, the reality (for me, anyway) is that until I've finished the book, it isn't possible to get a clear overview of exactly how the story works, and how well it works. Different authors have different approaches, and I don't think it's possible to lay down a template for writing a book that would suit everyone. But one point which is, I think, generally true, is that it is always possible to improve a book. The real question is - where do you stop, where do you draw the line? This is where deadlines can be very helpful, as long as you have allowed enough time to think about the story, so that the finished product does not seem rushed.

There are all kinds of ways in which a book can be improved. One of my failings is a tendency to repeat favourite phrases (yes, I am aware of it!) and I'm keen to keep repetition to a reasonable minimum. That said, there's no point in being different for the sake of it. The key point is that different kinds of books require different approaches. I write the Harry Devlin books, for instance, in a slightly different way from the Lake District Mysteries. In the latter, I tend to favour a steady build-up of suspense, developing character, atmosphere and plot over several early chapters, with a faster pace in the second half of the book. This is not an especially fashionable method at present, and I'd write a thriller, for instance, very differently, but I believe it suits the Lake District series. You have to remain true to your vision of a book, or a series, I think, whatever the pressures of fashion - in fact, I tend to think that is the reason why I've managed to keep publishing for over 20 years. However, one doesn't want to overdo a particular method of writing, and I've tried in The Frozen Shroud to introduce some fresh elements into the telling of the story, as well as into the plot.

Not every writer enjoys revision, but I do. During the course of putting a draft of a novel together, there are usually times when it's impossible not to worry about it. Will the story work? Have I walked the narrow line between preserving what is good about the series and falling into the trap of formula? Now I've completed the story, I feel very positive about it. The challenge now is to make it as enjoyable to read as it can be.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Forgotten Book - Les Magiciennes

When you find a writer whose work you really enjoy, it is a rather sad moment when you have finally read all of their available books. There is, though, an added frustration if the writer is foreign, and there are plenty more titles out there- but which have yet to be translated. Such is the case with one of my favourite writing duos, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The authors of the books which formed the basis for Vertigo and Les Diaboliques were prolific, but despite their success, many of their stories have yet to appear in English (which I find very surprising, I must say.). And having stopped studying French at the age of 16, regrettably, I'm not up to reading the originals.

Happily, however, Mrs Edwards is, like our daughter, a more accomplished linguist than me, and she has made her own translation of a very interesting short novel by Boileau and Narcejac, Les Magiciennes, and this is my Forgotten Book for today (though whether it's forgotten in France, I don't know - perhaps not.).

As so often with these writers, the central plot idea is spooky and arresting. The central character, Pierre Doutre, comes from a family which has made its life in the theatrical world. When his father dies, Pierre and his mother (a nicely portrayed character) struggle to come up with a strong enough magic act that will keep them going.  And then they come across two identical - and enigmatic - twin girls, with whose help their lives are transformed.

Because the audience does not know that there are two girls who look exactly the same, rather than just one girl, the twins can be employed to produce illusions which cause a sensation. And that's exactly what happens. But when Pierre falls for one of the girls,the complications come thick and fast. This is a book about identity, but it's also a neat and vivid thriller. Apparently, like so many of the authors' stories, it was turned into a film ,but this does not seem to be easy to track down. I'd love to see it one day but in the meantime I enjoyed the novel and I hope that some enterprising publisher makes it more widely available one of these fine days.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

DCI Banks: Strange Affair - review

DCI Banks' latest two-parter, Strange Affair, concluded unexpectedly yesterday. I say "unexpectedly", because for twenty minutes it seemed perfectly clear in which direction the story was heading, and the dialogue felt equally predictable. Yet, all of a sudden, the narrative motored off in a new direction, and I found myself enjoying it very much indeed.

This owes much, of course, to the strength of the plot in Peter Robinson's book on which the adaptation was based. But there was also fine work from a strong cast in which Stephen Tompkinson was at his most anguished and Caroline Catz at her spikiest, while Keith Barron was excellent as Banks's dad. In the end, the story posed a moral dilemma which I'd really not seen coming, and this device worked very well. Importantly, it didn't feel contrived.

Another pleasing feature, for me, of this episode was an element of nostalgia, in that I recognised a couple of locations. After I left law college, I spent a couple of years working in Leeds, a time when money was, to put it mildly, in short supply. I left Yorkshire to work in Liverpool, but I remain a great fan of the White Rose county, and DCI Banks makes good use of the Yorkshire setting, even though it is, admittedly, slightly less dramatic that that of, say, Lewis or Vera.

DCI Banks is, I think,starting to develop into a very good series, and it's reassuring to know that, because Peter Robinson has been so prolific and consistent over the years, there are plenty of story-lines to come. I look forward to the next instalment.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - 2011 movie

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by the late Stieg Larsson is one of the most remarkable of all crime debuts. I very much admired its ambition and scale - quite breathtaking in a first novel. Lisbeth Salander is a dazzlingly original creation and I also loved the way Larsson combined elements of classic mystery fiction with a highly contemporary story-line that is absolutely crammed with plot material. I don't claim it's a perfect book, of course. What I'm not sure about in particular is whether a certain unevenness in the narrative, and e a bit of over-writing (I felt maybe as much as 100 pages could have been cut without great loss, and the result would have been an even tighter and more focused book) is due to the fact that Larsson died before publication, and may have chosen to go back to the book, and edited it down somewhat, had he lived.

I haven't seen the 2010 Swedish movie adaptation yet (but I will soon, as I recently acquired the box set of DVDs). However, I've just watched the 2011 American version, directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig, and I felt - though it may verge on heresy to say so - that it was even more impressive than the book, because the need to condense the story enabled Fincher to concentrate on the core elements of the story, and he did so very effectively.

Craig really is a good actor - one of Cheshire's best! - and he puts in a characteristically strong performance as the journalist with a conscience who tries to solve a series of killings of women dating back many years. I also felt that Christopher Plummer was excellent as the elderly tycoon who hires him - one thing's for sure, The Sound of Music this movie ain't. Special praise goes to Rooney Mara, who tackles the enormously challenging role of Lisbeth Salander with aplomb.  

Fincher makes some of Larsson's points about crimes committed by powerful men against women (depressingly very topical in light of current horrifying allegations about the late Jimmy Savile) but he doesn't do so in a heavy-handed way. As a result, the film grips from start to finish, despite the unusual and convoluted plot. I really enjoyed it.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Twisted - movie review

Twisted is a title I came up with for the novel that later became Take My Breath Away (though it also had a brief incarnation as Guilty Creatures). The feeling was that Twisted wouldn't work, because there was another book - not crime of that title. I felt a bit surprised about that at the time, and my belief that it was a decent title was reinforced when Jeffrey Deaver used it as the title for a collection of his short stories, and then for a follow-up volume. And now I've watched a film with the same title. So one thing is for sure, it's not a title I can now use any time soon! No matter - but what about the movie?

Twisted didn't enjoy critical success - quite the reverse, I'm afraid. I've read one review describing it as a "career killer" for Ashley Judd, the star, and it's fair to say that this very appealing actor hasn't been quite as prominent in subsequent movies as her gifts deserve. But Samuel L. Jackson and Andy Garcia haven't done too badly. And I do not think the film is anything like as unsatisfactory as many of its detractors suggest.

The premise is that Ashley is a cop whose father, also a cop, went on a killing spree when he learned of the infidelity of his wife  who was one of her victims. Jackson plays her dad's partner, who has taken her under his wing. When she is promoted, she starts working with Garcia, with whom she has an equivocal relationship. Things go rapidly downhill when a man with whom she had a one-night stand is found brutally murdered. The pattern of Ashley's lovers meeting bloody ends then begins to repeat itself. Is Ashley so troubled that she has turned into a deranged killer?

We can all, perhaps, guess the answer to that, but despite weaknesses in the plot, I thought this was a reasonably watchable thriller. I'd bracket it with another Ashley Judd film, Double Jeopardy, which had similar failings, but passed the time pretty well. What I'd really like to see is a crime movie that made the most of Ashley Judd's vulnerable quality. Twisted failed to do so, but the setting in San Francisco is quite nicely evoked, and reminded me how keen I am to visit that city one day.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Forgotten Book - Nightmare

My Forgotten Book for today really is forgotten. I'd be surprised (almost disappointed!) if more than two or three of you have read Lynn Brock's 1932 book Nightmare. Yet Brock was quite a successful author in his day, and his elaborate mysteries featuring Colonel Gore are discussed from time to time. He has, however, been criticised, both for dullness (in places) and occasional racist remarks.

I've read a couple of Brock books before, and thought him quite interesting, but they did not prepare me for Nightmare. It is a stand-alone novel of some distinction. His publishers, Collins, said it was "an entirely original novel, which will arouse great interest and discussion. It is really a character study of a normal man turned murderer, a most fascinating study in psychology...We think Nightmare is one of the most remarkable books we have ever published."

I can see why they thought this - yet they, and Brock, were to be disapppointed. This was the first of his crime novels not to appear in the US, and yet I would argue that it is a very good novel. Flawed, yes, but ambitious and genuinely distinctive. Certainly, it's no mere imitation of Payment Deferred or Malice Aforethought.

Briefly, the story follows the misadventures of Simon Whalley, an Irishman whose career as a playwright and novelist bears some resemblance to that of Brock, who was also Irish and whose real name was Alister McAllister. Driven to madness by the cruelty of a small group of people, he sets about taking murderous revenge.

Why did this book fail to win admirers? I'm not entirely sure, but the downbeat ending, with no real twist, was probably a mistake. However, I'm fascinated by the way that Brock matches the action in the story with what was happening in society at the time. A very intereesting book. I'm glad I read it,and I hoipe that others can track it down too. I'd be surprised if any of Brock's other books are as good as this neglected gem.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

DCI Banks: Strange Affair - review

DCI Banks is back, with another two-parter, Strange Affair, the first episode of which I've just watched. I'm a long-time fan of the Peter Robinson books about Banks, but I haven't read this particular novel, which I suspect may be a good thing. The TV version featuring Stephen Tompkinson as Banks is perfectly watchable, but so far hasn't risen to the heights of the books. However, it's early days, and this story made a decent, if slightly slow, start.

Banks' brother Roy leaves Banks an anguished phone message, and it seems he may have something to do with the murder of a woman, who shortly afterwards is found shot to death. By this time, Banks himself has gone missing and the investigation is led at very short notice by DI Helen Morton, newly returned from maternity leave. Morton is played by Caroline Catz, a very appealing actor, who played a likeable DI in Murder in Suburbia. But Morton is very different - and much more serious.

So serious, in fact, that she treats Banks as a highly suspicious character, creating a bit of conflict, but (I felt) in a way that felt rather laboured and contrived. The screenplay writer might have done better to focus more on the whodunit side of the story, which didn't get going for a long time. The episode ended bleakly, though, with the discovery of Roy's body. He too had been shot.

The test of a two-parter is whether I want to watch the second episode, and the answer is that I do. My impression is that Tompkinson has toughened up his portrayal of Banks, and that's a sound move. He, like Catz, is a very engaging actor, and as the cast find their feet, it is possible that DCI Banks will turn into a staple of the schedules. At present, however, the jury is still out.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Sebastien Japrisot - and Advertising

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, by Sebastien Japrisot, and translated by Helen Weaver, has languished in my to-be-read pile for a very long time indeed. I’m not quite sure why this is so, since I enjoyed his far-fetched but gripping thriller Trap for Cinderella some years back. Perhaps the cumbersome title put me off. Now I’ve finally read it, I must say I enjoyed it a good deal, with just a few reservations.

Dany is a blonde, beautiful and myopic woman of 26, who borrows her boss’s Thunderbird car on impulse and sets off for the sea. But a series of mystifying events disrupt her journey – people she meets tell her that she made the same trip the day before, when in fact she was in Paris. She is attacked, and left injured, and then discovers a body in the boot of the car. What on earth is going on?

This vivid premise really is terrific, and reminiscent of the work of Boileau and Narcejac, though Japrisot probably has more pretensions as a “literary” writer. The snag, inevitably, is that the unravelling of the truth is rather cumbersome. Japrisot, like a number of his contempories (Catherine Arley and Herbert Montheilet spring to mind) sometimes struggled for a credible resolution to the dazzling puzzles that he created. All the same, this book didn’t deserve to wait as long as it did to be read.

Dany and her boss work in advertising, and so for a time did Japrisot (his pen-name was an anagram of Jean-Baptiste Rossi, his real name). Advertising and PR has supplied a good many crime writers not only with settings but also with business experience. Dorothy L. Sayers, Julian Symons, David Williams, John Franklin Bardin, Leighton Gage, Elmore Leonard, David Goodis and Alan Furst are examples, and I’m sure there are plenty of others. I’m not sure if anyone has ever written about the connection between working in advertising and crime fiction; perhaps it’s a subject worthy of further exploration.

Monday, 8 October 2012

CWA Northern Chapter - Silver Jubilee Week-end

I had a memorable week-end attending the Silver Jubilee celebration of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers' Association in Pickering, North Yorkshire. Our convenor, recently retired former DI Roger Forsdyke, didn't allow a torn achilles tendon to interrupt his arrangements for what began as a celebratory lunch and turned into a rather longer and thoroughly enjoyable celebration that was blessed with excellent weather.

I attended the first meeting of the Northern Chapter back in 1987 - along with my then fiancee, now my long-suffering wife. That meeting was set up by our first convenor, another ex-cop, Peter Walker, who is most famous as author of the books on which the enormously successful TV series Heartbeat was based. And it was great to see Peter, along with his wife Rhoda, this week-end. The idea that partners of writers should be made welcome was Peter's original concept, and a very good one too. It has helped to enhance the social aspect of the Chapter, and has generated many long-lasting friendships.

Peter and Margaret Lewis, two authors and also publishers, were also at that first meeting and not only did they become great friends, a few years ago they actually published one of my books - Dancing for the Hangman. Meg Elizabeth Atkins and her husband Percy Moss were also founder members of the chapter, and it was lovely to see Peter, Margaret, Meg and Percy once again. Sadly, Robert and Louise Barnard, whom again I met that first time 25 years ago were unable to attend due to Bob's poor health, but Bob did write to wish all his friends well - sentiments that were very warmly reciprocated. We also remembered the great Reginald Hill, who with his wife Pat was another founder member.

A highlight of the week-end (in addition to the excellent hospitality of the White Swan Inn) was a superb talk about an extraordinary double murder case by Detective Superintendent Steve Smith from North Yorkshire Police, who is pictured at the top of this post along with Roger. Special thanks to Roger and his wife Penny, as well as their son Toby, another police officer, for arranging such a tremendously enjoyable event. Amongst many others, it was great to catch up with Stuart Pawson, Lesley Horton and Sherlock expert David Stuart Davies. We look forward to the next 25 years!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Forgotten Book - Death in a Little Town

I’ve previously covered R.C.Woodthorpe in the Forgotten Books series, and today I’m returning to this currently obscure writer who was, for a few years, quite close to the top of the tree. But Woodthorpe’s career was short, and it’s symptomatic of the neglect into which he has fallen that, although he was an early recruit to the Detection Club, he has been missed off the list of members for a number of years!

Death in a Little Town was the first of two books he published in the mid-Thirties which featured Miss Matilda Perks (the other is A Shadow on the Downs, which I haven’t yet tracked down - this one is available on the Hathi site and I am really indebted to Christos for directing me to it.) Miss Perks is a sharp-tongued former schoolteacher who lives with her brother Robert and a loquacious parrot called Ramsay Macdonald. She does not, however, operate in this story as an amateur sleuth in the Jane Marple mould, though she is perceptive and inquisitive. When, ultimately, she discovers the truth, she keeps quiet about it.

The story concerns the battering to death, by a spade, of an unpleasant wealthy man called Bonar. He is a landowner in the Sussex town of Chesworth, and it is pretty clear that what really interested Woodthorpe was portraying the town and its people, rather than setting an elaborate puzzle to be solved. The key characters include a novelist and an eccentric bachelor, but no attempt is made to characterise Bonar, and thus it is difficult to care about what happened to him.

Woodthorpe was, I think, not a natural detective novelist. He was primarily interested in social comedy. There is a lot of dialogue in this book that does not take the story forward, though to some extent it portrays the people of the story entertainingly and amusingly. That, I’m afraid, wasn’t enough for me to love this story, but Woodthorpe could write well, and it’s a pity that inspiration started to desert him after only a handful of books.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Hunted - TV review

Hunted, a new BBC TV drama, the first episode of which I've just watched, is described in some quarters as being in the same vein as the long-running series Spooks. But I never saw Spooks - combining writing with working full time as a lawyer meant something must give, and for me that has usually been television series. But life is changing for me, and I thought I'd watch the start of this new series, on the basis that I might just manage to keep tuned if it proved entertaining.

I'm glad I did, because I enjoyed the first episode a good deal. It's pacy, action-packed stuff, and if you like James Bond, you'll probably like Hunted. The story began in Tangier, and within a very short time, an exceptionally attractive woman had killed an assortment of bad guys and apparently (but not actually) killed by a rooftop sniper. You don't mess with Sam Hunter, that is for sure. The part is played by Melissa George, and she turns out to work for a private security firm that involves itself in a variety of murky dealings.

Sam's whereabouts are betrayed to yet more bad guys, and she is again apparently killed, but - guess what! - she survives miraculously. Not so fortunate is her unborn child - the father is one of her colleagues, whom she suspects of being the traitor. A year or so later, and physically recovered, but scarred both in body and mind, she returns to her job, and becomes involved in a a case involving a wealthy gangster (played as creepily as ever by the splendid Patrick Malahide - how on earth was this born villain ever cast as that toff of a cop, Roderick Alleyn?).

Sam cunningly infiltrates the gangster's household, posing as a young American (apart from her lovely looks, amazing combat skills, and mastery of languages, she is also brilliant at acting and probably everything else you could imagine) but her secret is uncovered - again, the question arises: which of her colleagues is a double agent? - and the episode ended with her coming face to face with a sinister assassin. Did I mention, by the way, that Sam experienced a terrible trauma in her childhood? Yep, all the ingredients have been thrown into the mix. Hokum, perhaps, but very well done, and I shall make a point of tuning in next week. Thank goodness for part-time working....

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Tideline - review

Tideline is a first novel, by Penny Hancock, that has quickly achieved a great reputation. I met Penny at Crimefest in May, when we were on the same panel, moderated by Peter Guttridge. What she had to say about her debut sounded interesting, and at last I've caught up with it. Suffice to say that the accolades are well-earned - this is going to be the rave review I promised yesterday!

The story-line interweaves two connected narratives. Sonia tells her story in the first person, and it soon becomes clear that she is rather disturbed, possibly as a result of a tragic incident in her past involving somone called Seb. A 15 year old boy comes to visit her in her intriguing home on the banks of the River Thames - and Sonia decides that she doesn't want to let him leave.

An alternative perspective is provided by a third person narrative featuring Helen, the aunt of the missing boy. Helen has her own problems, compounded by a taste for alcohol, and her life disintegrates as the police investigate the boy's disappearance, and suspicion grows that she may have had a hand in it.

Years ago, I talked to a literary agent about the success of Minette Walters; she attributed it to a combination of excellent plotting and excellent writing. The same can be said of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vne, and with Penny Hancock's debut, the blend of story and style is again very impressive. The setting is superbly evoked, and though the plot has some echoes of The Collector and Misery, this is not a weakness, for the author has a very different approach from that of John Fowles and  Stephen King, and the result is a very different book. I really enjoyed this one - it's the best recent debut I've read since Belinda Bauer's Blacklands.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Four: movie review

Four is a British film, described as a "psychological thriller" which came out a year or so ago. Reading a snippet about the plot, which seemed interesting (a rich man hires someone to teach a lesson to his wife's lover) I was encouraged to watch it. Unfortuntely, it took only the first few lines of dialogue for me to start worrying about the script, and from an unpromising beginning, things went from bad to worse. There are four characters, none of them appealing or credible, and the acting, though on a slightly higher level than the plotting, characterisation and dialogue, was never going to trouble the Academy Award judges. It is a short film, less than 90 minutes in all, but it felt much, much longer. 

I thought I ought to check out what other reviewers have made of this film. The Guardian said it "isnt' terrible, just confusing and boring", while Britflicks said it was "atrocious", The Times and The Sunday Times were both scathing about the dialogue. I'm sure there must be kinder reviews of the film out there somewhere, but these reactions were enough to convince me that I hadn't missed too many subtleties.

And yet. There is something that troubles me a lot about publishing a negative review. I think that, when one admires or simply enjoys a book, a play, a film or anything else, it's entirely reasonable to point out any aspects of that don't work quite as well as others. Relentlessly piling on admiring superlatives can be unsatisfactory and pointless. Balance is surely a Good Thing. But there's a potential for unkindess about castigating a work of art that one or more people have worked hard on that should surely give one pause for thought, especially in the case of a low budget film like this. Returning to yesteday's topic, if J.K. Rowling is criticised by reviewers- however unfairly - she has at least the consolation that she is one of the great best-sellers of all time, someone who will be remembered long after most of us are forgotten. I definitely have some sympathy for those who (like me) are far, far, below that level of success. Bad as I thought this film was, in the end, I only decided to publish this review because I'm interested to seek people's opinions on severely negative reviews, and whether they can ever be justified. (I'm talking about reviews where, as here, the reviewer has no personal axe to grind, not the cases much in the news recently where negative reviews have been published, sometimes anonymously, primarily to denigrate fellow writers - I can see no excuse for that practice at all.)

Anyway, this blog is not meant to have a negative slant. It's a means of sharing my pleasure in the crime genre. So as a penance, tomorrow I will write a rave review of an excellent book I've just finished and which I loved from page one to the end!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Daring to be Different

It was inevitable that J.K. Rowling's decision to move away from Harry Potter and write something very different, The Casual Vacancy, would receive a huge amount of media attention, quickly followed by extremely mixed reviews. I've not read it as yet, though I've just read a depressingly negative review of the book in The Sunday Times. I'll return to the topic of negative reviews in the next day or two, but my theme today is the author's need to vary what they write.

Rowling could, quite safely, have written another book in the same vein as the hugely successful and enjoyable Harry Potter series (I've only read a couple, though I've seen most of the films, and I found them highly entertaining and well deserving of their success.) But it's entirely reasonable that she should have felt the urge to try her hand at writing a very different kind of book, and I'm glad that her new publisher has encouraged this. (Her new editor, David Shelley, was by the way the person who encouraged me to try my hand at a new crime series with a rural setting, so I have him to thank for the inspiration for the Lake District Mysteries; until then, I'd only written urban books, but David had faith that I could write a different sort of book, and to this day, I'm grateful for the confidence he showed in me.)

Just as, for instance, Paul McCartney can never escape the Beatles, but sill keeps writing fresh, and often inventive music, sometimes with great success, sometimes not, other artists and authors who have enjoyed success with one type of work, like Rowling, may come in for criticism when they move in a fresh direction. But a truly creative person is bound to want to keep stretching their talents in fresh directions.

Reginald Hill was a strong believer n varying what he wrote from book to book and his works included war-time books, spy thrillers, sci-fi and psychological suspense as well as whodunits . Until late in his career, he never wrote two successive novels n the Dalziel and Pascoe series. And his work remained fresh and exciting till the end of his life - largely as a result of this restlessness, and reluctance to write, continually, "more of the same".

At a much less exalted level, I feel I've benefited from writing two stand-alone novels, as well as my series books. And I'm tempted to try something different once again in the next  year or two - perhaps after one more Lake District book. Mind you, I 'm not sure what it would be as yet! Whether any resulting effort would achieve publication would be uncertain (not something J.K. has to worry about, of course) but I do believe that fear of failure, or bad reviews, should not deter a writer from avoiding the trap of formula. It's got to be a good thing, in the long run, to have dared to do something different.