Monday, 23 October 2017

The Business of Murder

Richard Harris was the name of a famous Welsh actor, and also of a contemporary of his, a very good TV writer, playwright and novelist. Perhaps because of the coincidence of names, the author Richard Harris is not quite as well-known as he deserves to be, given that his achievements are many and varied. Among other things, he was responsible for that excellent comedy play, later a TV series, Outside Edge. But it's his work in the crime field that I'm highlighting today.

Harris was closely involved with a wide range of excellent TV series, including Adam Adamant Lives!, Man in a Suitcase, and Shoestring, And back in 1981, he contributed a two-part mystery to the Sunday Night Thriller series. This was The Business of Murder, starring Martin Jarvis, Gareth Hunt, and Judy Loe. An excellent cast, and a story that still sticks in my mind.

I'm not quite sure which came first, the screenplay or the stage play, but The Business of Murder was first performed in Windsor in the same month that the TV version was screened, moving to London in April that year. Even though you might think the TV screening would have spoiled it for many fans, it became hugely successful, running for eight years. This was an era when thrillers did very well on the London stage, in the wake of Sleuth and Francis Durbridge's popular crime plays. Will the stage thriller ever regain such prominence in the West End? It doesn't seem likely right now, but as the revival of interest in crime classics in paperback shows, you never can tell.

I've never seen the stage version, but I've refreshed my mind about the storyline by reading the playscript. And it's certainly a clever piece of writing. Richard Harris has been a highly successful storyteller for many years, and this tale of a bitter man's ingenious revenge is surely one of his best. The play is still regularly performed in provincial theatres, and if I get a chance to see it in the north west sometime, I'll certainly grab it.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Guest Blog - Fiona Veitch Smith


At Harrogate in summer I was pleased to meet, at a gathering of fellow Northern crime writers, Fiona Veitch Smith. Fiona is based in the north east, and I'm glad to welcome her to this blog. She's written a guest post about her new book, The Death Beat, which is published by Lion:

"Synchronicity (noun): The simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.

Origin: 1950s. Coined by psychoanalyst CG Jung (who has a cameo in The Death Beat)

I began researching The Death Beat in November 2015.  Set in 1921, I planned to send Poppy, a young London journalist, to New York for three months, with her editor, Rollo. I intended to reveal Rollo’s back story, thrust Poppy into the world of speakeasies, early radio and cinema, and explore the contrast between wealthy and poor immigrants. At the time, the tragedy of the Syrian civil war was all over the media, and the debate in western nations about how many refugees to let in was reaching fever pitch. This was a useful parallel for my poor Jewish immigrant characters, Mimi and Estie, who were fleeing the Russian civil war. I was intrigued to read about the 1921 US Immigration Restriction Act which placed restrictions on immigrants from certain ethnic, religious and national groups.

But what hadn’t happened yet was Donald Trump. All I knew back then was that he was a reality TV star who questioned Barack Obama’s place of birth. It never crossed my mind that in just over a year, Americans would elect this unlikely candidate to the presidency.

But come November 2016 they did just that. By then The Death Beat was finished and, for a few months forgotten, as I started work on the next book. However, in the spring of 2017 the first edits arrived and I re-engaged with it; but this time with the new reality show on the TV every single night. I was startled by the parallels. The policies and attitudes of nearly a century ago were being played out again. In 1921 it was the Jews who were seen as being of the wrong religion, and the darker-skinned Italians who were suspected of being rapists and gangsters. Instead of ‘terrorists’ there were ‘anarchists’; with Eastern Europeans and their socialist leanings declared a threat to national security.

In October 2017, with the release date only two weeks away, synchronicity struck again. One of my unsympathetic characters is a man called Archie Weinstein, created 18 months before the name became infamous. But if that isn’t enough, another character is a Hollywood film producer. Pure coincidence, but an odd one. Now I wait to see how it will all be received…"


Friday, 20 October 2017

Forgotten Book - Too Many Cousins

At one point yesterday, the British Library edition of Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case was jostling with Dan Brown, Philip Pullman and Irvine Welsh in the top 15 Amazon UK Kindle bestsellers list (and in fact this morning it is #12). I think we can safely say that it's no longer a forgotten book. Who, not so long ago, would have foreseen such a revival of interest in Golden Age fiction? Well, today, I'm going to talk about one of Berkeley's colleagues in the Detection Club post-war.

Douglas G. Browne was an interesting writer who combined the writing of detective novels with ventures into true crime - for instance, he co-authored a biography of the legendary pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury. I like his work, because even though his novels are sometimes flawed, he was apt to come up with intriguing ideas. He wasn't in Berkeley's class, but then, few Golden Age writers were..

Too Many Cousins is a case in point. It was published in 1946, but is set towards the end of the war, and it begins splendidly. Harvey Tuke, Browne's regular amateur sleuth, who works in the Department of Public Prosecutions, meets a chap called Parmiter at his club. Parmiter is a professional obituarist. Now I've always found the art of obituary writing very interesting, and I've often toyed with the idea of writing about an obituarist, though I've never got round to it. But recently I got to k now a professional obituary writer, and you never know, I may get round to it one day. Meanwhile, Parmiter's story got me hooked.

He tells Tuke about a series of deaths in the same family that have come to his attention. Each case appears to involve a fatal accident. Yet can it really be coincidence? When Tuke finds that the three people who were died were among six cousins who are in line for a life-changing inheritance, his curiosity is aroused. It appears that one of the surviving cousins has been the victim of an attempted murder, but can we believe what she says? Might she be trying to divert suspicion from herself?

I felt that, once the main characters were introduced, the book faltered somewhat. Never mind too many cousins, there were too few suspects. However, it's all wrapped up quite neatly, and Tuke explains all to Parmiter. But there is still one more twist - and a very pleasing one - to come. All in all, a decent, swift read. My copy, I should add, is rather charmingly inscribed by Browne - "because it is the first for six years." He also corrects in his hand a mistake made on the very first page of the book. I can imagine just how he felt about that. One works hard on a book, and still comes back to the finished version, and finds faults. It happens to me all the time, and I suspect quite a few other writers know the feeling...

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Back from Bouchercon


I've just returned from Bouchercon in Toronto, and it was a pleasant surprise to be greeted by warm Cheshire sunshine in mid-October.. My memories are very warm, too. It was a great convention, and amongst many unforgettable experiences were those outside the scheduled programming, notably a trip to Niagara Falls. It was a drizzly day, but the rain was nothing compared to the majestic torrents of the Falls. Christine Poulson and I sailed in the boat that takes you up close and personal to the torrent, and we learned exactly why you are handed ponchos before boarding. We got drenched, but it was worth it. Truly memorable. (So was the coach trip itself, but that's a story for another day...)

In terms of panels, I got lucky. I took part in a "History of the Genre" panel moderated by Sarah Weinman, which was terrific, and moderated a panel about private investigators and amateur sleuths, with a panel mainly comprising people I'd never met before, and who proved to be witty and articulate conversationalists. As an unexpected bonus, I was invited to join a panel moderated by Barbara Peters, who is one of the best publishers (and booksellers) anywhere, covering the perennial "hardboiled versus cosy" debate. My fellow panellists included Rick Ollerman, whom I first met at New Orleans Bouchercon last year, and whose book about the genre I'm looking forward to devouring shortly. Brian Skupin also presented me with the locked room antho he and John Pugmire have edited, which looks exciting.

Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, invited me to join a group of her authors at lunch, and I was also asked to take part in a celebration of EQMM - an event hosted by Art Taylor, who was a very popular winner of a Macavity for best short story. As well as Janet and Art, I had the chance to catch up with Steve Steinbock of EQMM, with whom I shared a memorable trip to Hawaii earlier this year.

One of the strange things about a massive event such as this is that there are some people one never manages to get to see, which is a shame, but you can't do everything in such a mad whirl. I did, though, have the chance to spend time with quite of lot of old friends and new. One particular pleasure was being taken out to lunch by Peter Robinson a couple of days before the convention began - it's ages since we've got together, and it's always good to catch up. Meals offer a chance to escape the excitement to a nice restaurant and I dined with, amongst others, members of the Malice Domestic Board, Joni, Shawn, and Tonya), and with Steve and Alex Gray, Karin Salvalaggio, Jacques Filippi, and Peter Rozovsky. There was tea with Ann Cleeves as well as with Barbara and with Marv Lachman, an international reception hosted by Crime Writers of Canada, and parties hosted by Harper Collins and Poisoned Pen Press respectively. As well as a mega-book signing event organised by Harper Collins which almost had me running out of ink.
Travelling so far isn't cheap, especially given the current state of sterling, and very understandably, the cost deters some writers and fans. But by combining the trip with some sight-seeing and plenty of fun stuff, one may sometimes be able to justify the expense. This one - like (in different ways) my trips earlier this year to Dubai, Hawaii and Washington DC, ranks as one of the trips of a lifetime - I've just crammed them all into a short space of time! As for books, I did plenty of airport and plane reading, and I'm afraid that even though I promised myself I wouldn't actually buy any books, I did come back with so many that I pushed my luggage weight allowance to the limit. But it was worth it.. .

Monday, 16 October 2017

Midnight Fear - 1990 film review

Midnight Fear is a not very well-known American film that was recently screened on the Talking Pictures TV channel. It's not an old black and white movie, but a film that, in 1990, clearly had aspirations to be cutting-edge. In more ways than one - it's a violent, and at time disturbing thriller about a crazed killer. It's not a masterpiece, but it has some unusual aspects, and it kept me interested.

Early on, it seems as if the story will follow a predictable path. A young couple seem to be building their relationship on a lonely ranch, while a woman is savagely murdered in the same area. David Carradine rolls up to the crime scene: he's an ace detective, but he's also hopelessly drunk. He becomes fascinated by the case, and determines to investigate, even though he's moved to other duties after making a fool of himself on television.

Meanwhile, a couple of nasty-seeming characters are on the loose. They are two brothers - one has just been released from a mental hospital, and is deaf, the other is his brother. They find themselves at the ranch and start to take an unhealthy interest in the young woman who lives there. She's played by August West, an actor about whom I know nothing. Her career seems to have faded, which is a great shame, since I thought she was excellent.

Carradine, as charasmatic and troubled in this film as evidently he was in real life, soon finds himself on the trail of the two brothers. It seems that the deaf chap murdered the girl, and one presumes that there will be a race against time culminating in his trying and failing to murder August West's character, before Carradine ultimately prevails. In fact, the plot veers off in a different direction. As I say, it's a disturbing film, with a number of striking plot twists, and it does not deserve to be consigned to oblivion.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Forgotten Book - Fear to Tread

Fear to Tread is one of Michael Gilbert's early books, dating from 1953, and isn't especially well-known. It's a thriller, rather than a detective story or a police novel, although Gilbert's series police detective Hazlerigg plays a small part in the story. But that's typical Gilbert: he focused on storytelling rather than writing series. Here, the hero is a headmaster called Mr Wetherall, whose hatred of bullying leads him into danger.

I first read the novel at the back end of the 60s, when I first discovered Gilbert. I have to confess that it didn't make as great an impression on me as much of his other work. Part of the reason for that is that much of the book's appeal lies in its depiction of shabby post-war London, and at that time, I didn't know London at all. Another explanation is that Gilbert was writing an authentic, and fairly realistic novel about crime and corruption. He even includes an extract from a newspaper report of 1953 to emphasise the topicality of his story. But writing topical crime fiction is a risky business.

It's risky because it dates quickly, and less than twenty years after the book was published, it didn't seem - at least to my younger self- to be in the least topical. Life had moved on. In many ways, the mood of this story is in tune with the post-war black and white films often to be found on the Talking Pictures TV channel. In the 21st century, on the other hand, the book has added value as a sort of social document.

Mr Wetherall stumbles across a glorified black market racket, and finds him up against some very ruthless criminals. Gilbert shows how a decent, relatively ordinary man can find himself threatened, and find himself drawing upon unsuspected reserves of courage. (Some of his later books are in a similar vein - an outstanding example is The Crack in the Teacup, one of my favourites). I liked this book better the second time around. It's not one of his finest books, but now I can admire the smoothness of Gilbert's storytelling. He made it look so easy. .

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard - film review

I never met the late Nigel Morland, but I was in touch with him briefly prior to his death in 1986. He edited a magazine called Current Crime, which coincidentally is discussed in the latest issue of CADS. I was keen to lay my hands on copies, but although he supplied some to me, he was clearly struggling to cope with things at that point, when he must have been about 80. But he had a long and rather interesting career in crime fiction.

His real name, it seems, was Carl Van Biene, and after a spell in journalism as a teenager, he worked for a short time as Edgar Wallace's secretary. in his debut novel, The Phantom Gunman, published when he was 30, he introduced Mrs Palymyra Pym. Although he wrote under a host of pen-names, and produced a long list of books over the next four decades, Mrs Pym remained his best-known character. In 1953, he became a founder member of the CWA.

Mrs Pym made it into the movies in 1939, when Morland wrote the screenplay for Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard. This film was thought for a long time to have been lost, but it resurfaced a while ago, and I've now caught up with it on Talking Pictures. And I'm glad I did. It's decent entertainment for its period, and there's a lot of pleasure to be taken in the chauvinistic reaction of the male establishment to the arrival in a murder investigation of a female cop, Mrs Pym. What would Cressida Dick make of it, I wonder?

The story concerns the mysterious deaths of two women, who just happen to have bequeathed substantial sums to a psychical research society. A young newspaper reporter (Nigel Patrick) is sceptical about the psychics, and Mrs Pym (played with gusto by Mary Clare) suspects dark deeds. The mystery is nicely done, and I enjoyed watching it. I'm not suggesting that Morland was a great writer - I suspect he was essentially a journeyman, but there's no shame whatever in that. I get the impression of a hard-working professional who came up with a very good idea, a detective character who really was ahead of her time.  ,

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Night Visitor - film review

Even before Scandi-noir was a thing, there was The Night Visitor. A film from 1971 with a very chilly feel. If you are in the mood for cheery entertainment, be warned. This film is'n't for you. It's all about madness and murder, and Bergman's muse Liv Ullmann is in the cast. The film's alternative title is Lunatic, and there are enough shots of snowy landscapes to chill you to the marrow. And yet - it's also a sort of locked room mystery. A locked prison cell, in fact.

One winter night, an inmate called Salem (played by Max von Sydow with even more than his customary gloom) escapes from an asylum. He heads for a lonely house, where his family are bickering. Two years ago he was convicted of a murder. But was he guilty, or was the perpetrator really his brother-in-law (Per Oscarsson),? This chap is a doctor, and decidedly creepy. He's married to Liv, and they have a fractious relationship with Liv's sister.

Murder is done. The doctor sees Salem, but when the police become involved - in the extremely unlikely form of Trevor Howard - there is no evidence that Salem ever got out of the asylum. He's back in his locked cell, and there seems to have been no way that he could have got out. The detective is perplexed, and Salem continues to carry out a diabolical plan before all is finally revealed.

I found this an intriguing film, but it's also rather strange. There are some odd casting choices - not just Trevor Howard, but Rupert Davies, Arthur Hewlett, and Gretchen (EastEnders) Franklin feature in rather unlikely roles. And the music is written by Henry Mancini, though the film and soundtrack are a world away from both The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Overall, worth watching, but very slow.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Forgotten Book - The Bornless Keeper


I can remember looking at a copy of The Bornless Keeper in my local library at Northwich, not long after it was first published in 1974. The storyline on the dust jacket seemed quite interesting, but veering more towards the horror genre than crime. I didn't borrow it, and I've only recently, after all these years, come into possession of a copy.

One thing that intrigued me was that the jacket said that the Yuill name was "a pseudonym. The author does not want his real identity disclosed." A little later, Yuill produced a series of three very different books about a private eye called James Hazell. I did read those, and very entertaining they were. What's more, they were adapted for television ,with Nicholas Ball playing Hazell. And the authors were revealed to be Gordon Williams and the former footballer (who also became England football manager) Terry Venables.

The Bornless Keeper, however, was written by Williams on his own. And the copy I've acquired actually bears his signature. Williams is an unsung figure in the annals of crime fiction, and I've only just discovered that he died recently, in August. He received very respectful obituaries, but perhaps less attention than you might expect given that one of his novels was shortlisted for the very first Booker Prize. His output of fact and fiction was extremely varied - he ventured into science fiction at one point and apparently also wrote pseudonymous thrillers - and he scripted the TV version of Ruth Rendell's Tree of Hands. But he said he'd become bored with writing novels.

At his peak, though, he was a fine novelist. He was a Scot, but for a while he and his wife lived in rural Devon, and while there he wrote a novel set in the area, The Siege at Trencher's Farm, famously turned by Sam Peckinpah into the violent and controversial  Straw Dogs. Peacock Island, the setting for The Bornless Keeper, was evidently based on Brownsea Island. Williams writes evocatively about place, and numerous small touches reveal that this is an author of considerable distinction.

A weird creature seems to be running amok on the island, prompting locals on the mainland to recall the legend of the mysterious Bornless Keeper. For years, one wealthy woman has lived on the island as a recluse. But now the place seems to have been taken over by a grotesque beast with homicidal tendencies. Despite the horrific and supernatural trappings, this is indeed a crime novel, and the depiction of tensions between the investigating police officers is one of its strengths. The jacket blurb suggests that Yuill was contemplating more books, and it may be that this was meant to be the start of a series, before he decided to collaborate with Venables on the Hazell stories instead.

The inquiry is complicated by the intervention of a TV crew, who want to make a film set on the island. I didn't find their activities quite so compelling, and you don't have to be excessively sensitive to find the presentation of the female lead character unpleasant. It's a reminder that attitudes in the Seventies were very different from those prevailing today. The Bornless Keeper is an odd book, not quite like anything I've read, and far less conventional than the Hazell trilogy. But it's certainly readable, and Williams' work in the genre does not deserve the neglect into which it has fallen.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Foreign Bodies - a new British Library anthology


Over the past twenty-plus years, I've had the pleasure of compiling and editing a great many anthologies of crime writing. This year sees the publication of no fewer than five of my anthologies - four from the British Library, and the CWA collection Mystery Tour, due later in the year. But of all the anthologies I've been associated with, Foreign Bodies is one of the most exciting. And after a great deal of work behind the scenes, it finally hits the shelves tomorrow.

Classic crime fiction is usually associated in the public mind with stories written in the English language. Christie, Sayers and company in Britain, of course, and their American counterparts, the likes of Ellery Queen and C. Daly King. Few people realise how many detective stories were written in other languages at much the same time. And not only those by Georges Simenon, either.

The appeal of the detective story is worldwide,and that has long been the case. Sherlock Holmes inspired a host of writers to flatter Conan Doyle by imitation. Maurice Leblanc's stories about Arsene Lupin (which feature "Holmlock Shears",among other characters!) are quite well-known, the tales by the German Paul Rosenhayn about an American sleuth in the Holmes mould are long-forgotten. And even writers in Asia and South America were taking note of what Doyle and his successors were doing in Britain, and seeking to follow their example.

There are a number of reasons why compiling Foreign Bodies has proved quite a challenge. For a start, it's far from easy to track down some of the stories in their original forms. Acquiring the rights has sometimes been far from easy - we missed out on one intriguing "impossible crime" story aa a result of rights problems, for example - and getting the translations sorted out with a satisfying period feel has been another hurdle. Thankfully, I and the British Library have benefited from a great deal of help, in particular from John Pugmire of Locked Room International and American short story writer and translator Josh Pachter. I hope that readers find the result of our labours as fascinating to read as I have found it to put together.