As 2008 draws to a close, I’d like to wish all visitors to this blog a peaceful, healthy and happy 2009. Given all the doom and gloom about the world economy, it might be pushing it a bit also to wish everyone a prosperous new year, but let’s hope that the ravages of recession don’t affect us – or the publishing business which matters so much to both writers and readers – too severely.
On this New Year’s Eve, I’d also like to say how much I appreciate the many kindnesses that I’ve been shown by a lot of people who have come across this blog. One of the year’s greatest pleasures has been to meet a good number of fellow bloggers for the very first time – Maxine, Steve, Rhian, Gerald, Bill, Pari, the list goes on – and I hope that in 2009 I’ll have the chance to meet some more of you as well as to renew friendships made so far. Crime fiction readers and writers are marvellous company, and their generosity of spirit is evident in so many of the comments and emails I receive.
I’ll simply end the 2008 blog posts by saying thanks again, and do keep visiting ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’
Wednesday, 31 December 2008
As 2008 draws to a close, I’d like to wish all visitors to this blog a peaceful, healthy and happy 2009. Given all the doom and gloom about the world economy, it might be pushing it a bit also to wish everyone a prosperous new year, but let’s hope that the ravages of recession don’t affect us – or the publishing business which matters so much to both writers and readers – too severely.
Tuesday, 30 December 2008
I’ve not done as much reading as I would have liked this past year, but I’ve still read some jolly good books. Great new novels came from the likes of Ann Cleeves, P.D. James, Peter Lovesey and the two Kates (Atkinson and Ellis.) That's Kate Ellis, in the photo third from the top, and Ann with Martyn Waites and me at Baltimore in the photo below.
Among the older books, I loved The Prisoner by Boileau and Narcejac, and everything I could lay my hands on by Henry Wade.
I didn’t watch that much tv, but I admired Wallander, and among several excellent films, Fracture, The Page Turner, Notes on a Scandal and Disturbia stand out in my memory.
On the music front, I enjoyed a wonderful concert by Dionne Warwick at the Lowry in Manchester, and had the pleasure of supper and conversation with the charismatic conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic, as well as a first meeting with the city's cultural supremo Phil Redmond and an insight into the massively refurbished, and very impressive, Bluecoat Gallery.
There were pilgrimages to 221b Baker Street, and the graves of Wordsworth, Poe and Agatha Christie.
And of course there are plenty of other people and events, too many to mention, who helped make the past twelve months so good.
A final word for the city where I work. Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture was highly successful, defying the predictions of the city’s many critics. I’d been looking forward to Culture Year for a long time, and the rebuilding of the city provided the impetus for the return of Harry Devlin in Waterloo Sunset – and I am so pleased for the people of Liverpool that it all went so well. Let’s hope that the momentum is continued in 2009 and beyond, and that more and more people come to visit one of the most fascinating cities not just in the UK, but in the world.
Monday, 29 December 2008
Here are some images which encapsulate just a few of the very many memorable aspects of my 2008.
It’s been quite an astonishing year – in the same week in July, I was short-listed for one literary award, and won another, my first. I published two new novels, and an anthology that I’d edited, and enjoyed their launches at great locations – the Hard Day’s Night Hotel, Manchester Central Library, and St George’s Hall – as well as running a short story competition, won by the deserving Cathy Roberts.
There were conventions at Bristol, Baltimore and Harrogate, and events at venues as diverse as the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, Waterstones in Liverpool One, and the Peabody Hotel opposite Baltimore’s Washington Memorial. I met for the first time such marvellous writers as Thomas H..Cook, P.D. James, Jason Goodwin, Tim Heald and Laurie King. And I was elected to the Detection Club.
I feel as though I’ve packed a lot in, and there have been times when I know I’ve made the mistake of trying to do too much. 2009 is likely to be quieter in some ways (no books to launch for a start – I need to finish the current work in progress first!) But if it’s half as much fun, it will still be pretty good.
Sunday, 28 December 2008
The fact that today is the 18th birthday of my son and webmaster Jonathan, coupled with the fact that, A Level grades permitting, he’ll be attending the same college as I did, and to study law, prompts me (in between copious celebrations) to reflect on links between the generations.
As far as crime fiction is concerned, I recently received a copy of Quiver, a thriller published by Faber and described in the blurb as ‘a thrilling, filmic crime debut that will appeal to fans of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers’. Sounds interesting, but what really caught my eye was that the book is written by Peter Leonard. The author just happens to be the son of Elmore Leonard, one of the most successful American crime writers of the last thirty years.
The Leonards are by no means the only father and son (or, I should say, parent and child) crime writers. In the past there have been quite a number. Examples that spring to mind are the Americans C.W. and Sue Grafton and, in Britain, Edgar and Selwyn Jepson and E.C. and Nicholas Bentley. Coming up to the present day, we have James Lee and Alafair Burke as well as the Leonards in the States and, in Britain, Peter and Phil Lovesey.
Phil Lovesey is a writer I’d like to single out, because his writing has always appealed to me. He’s earned acclaim for a number of books, but it’s probably fair to say that the mega-success I’ve predicted for him hasn’t quite arrived just yet. Nevertheless, he is, like his gifted father, a writer both readable and talented. I’ve included a couple of his stories in anthologies that I’ve edited and, for a book called Scenes of the Crime, I persuaded both of them to contribute – a pleasing double act. They were two very good stories, needless to say, and I eagerly await Phil’s next novel.
Following a parent in the same line of business may have some advantages (contacts, understanding of the business and so on) but in other respects it isn’t straightforward. I’ll look forward to reading Quiver, but I’ll enjoy it on its own merits, rather than because it’s written by the son of a superstar.
Saturday, 27 December 2008
Two books to look out for in the New Year feature the detectives created by Matt Rees and Andrea Camilleri, that is, Omar Yussef and Inspector Montalbano respectively.
Rees has made quite an impression with his first two books featuring Yussef and The Samaritan’s Secret is set in Nablus on the West Bank, all too familiar to us as a name from countless melancholy news bulletins. The case involves the death of a young Samaritan, and the book is published by Atlantic Books on 23 January.
On the same day, Picador bring out The Paper Moon in paperback. The translation is by the award-winning Stephen Sartarelli. Montalbano investigates the murder of a man shot at point-blank range in the face while his pants are down – very unsporting. According to the press release, the case also involves ‘two evasive, beautiful women as prime suspects, dirty cocaine, dead politicians, mysterious computer codes, and a series of threatening letters.’ Camilleri’s series has attracted a large following and I particularly look forward to this one.
Friday, 26 December 2008
Prior to this autumn, I’d only met Diane Janes once before. But after we collaborated at the Windermere authors’ evening, we bumped into each other again at a lunch held three days later by the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association.
Diane’s novel Moonshadow was short-listed for the CWA’s Debut Dagger in 2006and I very much look forward to its appearance in print. Meanwhile, she has published Edwardian Murders, an attractively produced true crime book. I'm keen on true crime - hence my interest in Crippen, and hence Dancing for the Hangman, and Victorian and Edwardian murder cases have a special appeal for me.
The book highlights a 1908 case that I’ve read about in the past. It concerns the shooting of Caroline Luard at an isolated summerhouse at Igtham in Kent. Shortly afterwards her husband, Major Charles Luard, committed suicide. Two years later, a man called Nisbet was murdered, and one John Dickman was convicted of the crime and duly executed. There have been suggestions that Dickman was also responsible for Caroline’s murder.
It’s a convoluted and fascinating case and I was glad to swop books with Diane so as to have the chance to study her research and theories. I've belatedly made a start on Edwardian Murders, and so far I've found it very interesting.
Thursday, 25 December 2008
On this special day, I feature 12 Days, a book of seasonal short stories that I bought this time last year - an anthology edited by Shelley Silas, including contributions by such luminaries as Val McDermid and Stella Duffy. Well worth a look if you're a fan of the short form.
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
I’d like to wish all visitors to this blog a merry – no, a criminally merry – Christmas. It’s always been a favourite time of year for me, usually made all the better by the fact that despite the tinsel having appeared in the shops for months in advance, I never quite seem to realise that the big day is approaching until it is almost upon me.
Over the Christmas and New Year break, posts on this blog will be continuing to appear on a daily basis, thanks to the advance scheduling function of Blogger.
And since there’s a lot of debate at this time of year about seasonal mysteries, I should say that there’s little doubt about my own top choice. It’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, a complex and skilfully plotted novel by the one and only Dame Agatha. If by any chance you are a fan of the traditional mystery who has somehow managed to miss out on this one, you will enjoy it. Classic setting, excellent clueing, a touch of the ‘locked room mystery’ and a neat solution combine to make it one of the best Golden Age whodunits.
Tuesday, 23 December 2008
In the 1970s, the hugely popular television series ‘Poldark’ made Winston Graham’s name very well known. I never got into ‘Poldark’, a historical saga set in Cornwall (even though I thought Angharad Rees, one of the stars, was truly lovely) and I was never tempted to read the books. Not until some years later did I discover that, before he turned to swashbucklers, Graham was a highly accomplished writer of crime fiction.
Successful, too. He wrote the book on which Hitchcock based that interesting movie ‘Marnie’, starring Sean Connery, and also the story that sourced ‘The Walking Stick’, a quirky thriller boasting another starry cast that included the late David Hemmings, Samantha Eggar and Francesca Annis. I rather like both films.
And there is more. Winston Graham was the very first winner of the CWA Gold Dagger Award in 1955, for The Little Walls. (In fact, in those days, the award rejoiced in the name of the Crossed Red Herrings Award. It changes name from time to time, having recently been the Duncan Lawrie Dagger an expediency to reflect the short-lived sponsorship of a bank, but the Dagger name changes are irritating; to my mind the Gold Dagger is the right title for the award for best crime novel of the year.)
So I decided it was high time to read a bit of Winston Graham. And thanks to eBay, I now have a decent and modestly priced haul of his paperbacks.
Monday, 22 December 2008
How important are reviews? It’s a question that can divide opinion, but I’m with those who think that they do matter a lot. It’s sad that newspapers seem to be cutting back on the space afforded to book reviews, and I was also sorry to learn of the death the other day of The Sunday Telegraph’s highly regarded crime fiction critic Susanna Yager. I never met her, and I don’t really know much about her, but for many years her reviews were always thoughtful and perceptive. And once or twice she gave books of mine the thumbs-up, which I greatly appreciated.
In fact, the appreciation of reviewers who care about crime fiction is something that I care about a lot. A poor review here and there is all very well, but a series of negative comments would be troubling. Thankfully, 2008 has been a good year for me on the review front, and I was delighted to read Steve Steinbock’s enthusiasm for Waterloo Sunset in the latest issue of The Strand Magazine.
Fellow author Keith Miles (whose railway detective series is itself highly enjoyable) has also been generous in his piece about Dancing for the Hangman in Crime Time. You can read it here: Crime Time review
Sunday, 21 December 2008
Neil Rose is a novelist who also works as a writer in the legal profession. He edits The Legal Executive Journal and contributes to other legal magazines. Naturally he has a keen interest in the link between fiction writing and the law – which I share.
In the UK, there are many fewer practising lawyers who publish fiction than in the US, for reasons that aren’t really clear to me (surely it cannot be that British lawyers work harder or are less literate?!) But there have been a few of us over the years, including in the past such notable names as Cyril Hare and Michael Gilbert. In the last year or two, the new kids on the block have included fellow crime writer Neil White, whom I met a few times this year (most memorably on the night of the CWA Dagger Awards).
Neil Rose has just published, in the Law Society’s Gazette, an article about lawyers who write fiction and which features some of us. Here is the link: Solicitors as Authors
Saturday, 20 December 2008
To accompany the high profile new series of 'Wallander', the BBC has produced an interesting documentary about the character, and his creator, Henning Mankell. The programme featured John Harvey visiting Sweden and interviewing Mankell and some of his admirers, along with a few comments from crime novelists Jeffrey Deaver and Ann Cleeves.
Although I’ve been interested in Mankell’s books for a number of years, I haven’t read many, and I learned a good deal more about him and his approach to writing from this programme. The context of the books, the changes (not all for the better) within Swedish society over the years, was also portrayed concisely yet informatively.
Mankell’s debt to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, creators of that earlier melancholy Swedish cop Martin Beck, was acknowledged (as was the fact that Sjowall and Wahloo in turn owed much to the lead given by Ed McBain, the American mastera of police procedure.) He came over as an interesting and humane man, who has devoted a fair slice of the fortune he has earned to literacy and health projects in Africa that are plainly very close to his heart.
I’ve never visited Sweden, but the programme made me want to go there (at the height of summer, mind you) and also to read more Mankell.
Friday, 19 December 2008
I’ve read some terrific novels this year, but I recently finished the best of all. I’ve not read Kate Atkinson’s earlier books about Jackson Brodie, an ex cop turned p.i., but my agent Mandy Little said she thought I’d find something in common between my concerns and interests as a writer and Atkinson’s, and sent me her copy of When Will There Be Good News?
The first thing to say is that Mandy’s comments were flattering, because I really admired the quality of Atkinson’s writing. There is something about her sense of humour that really appeals to me; hers is a very British type of wit, and I’m not sure that it will appeal as much to readers from overseas, but I’d guess they would relish the excellence of her characterisation as much as I did. Reggie, the young heroine of the story is one of the most appealing people I’ve encountered in a crime novel for many years. Louise, the tough cop with an apparently perfect marriage to a genuinely nice guy, but a sneaking devotion to Jackson, is equally well drawn. And Jackson himself, tough, charismatic yet very human, is a first rate central figure.
The story-line is complex. The starting point is a terrible crime, 30 years ago, which bears superficial resemblances to a tragic real-life murder case. The ramifications of that crime in the present day are what fascinate Atkinson. It needs to be said (and I know many reviewers have said it) that the story is massively dependent on a string of coincidences. But the same is true of much of the best work of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. Almost all crime writers write stories that involve coincidence (I certainly do) but the best can get away with a whole string of coincidences, because the quality of their work enables a very willing suspension of disbelief.
Atkinson is regarded as a literary novelist rather than a crime writer, but who cares about categories? I’ve read at least half a dozen books this year that I’d describe as masterly, but this is the most enjoyable novel of all.
Thursday, 18 December 2008
I’ve been asked to review Russell James’ new book, Great British Fictional Detectives, for Tangled Web UK. It will be a pleasure, because it’s a fascinating book to dip into, crammed with information and lavishly illustrated.
Russell is himself an accomplished crime novelist, the author of dark books such as Underground. He’s a former chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, and I’ve known him for quite a long time. In compiling this book, he’s achieved a nice balance between including material about current writers’ detectives (there is a section about my own Harry Devlin, I’m glad to say) and those of the past.
The trouble with most reference books like this is that they travel over very familiar ground. Russell James has taken great pains to include material about obscure characters as well as their famous counterparts. There are quite a few I’ve never heard of: examples include Peter Darrington (created by Douglas V. Duff, equally unknown to me), Mallin and Coe (Roger Ormerod) and Constable Kerr (Roderic Jeffries.)
The eclectic coverage is one of the great merits of this appealing book. The illustrations are a real plus, and there are plenty of lists of selected sidekicks, tv detectives and so on. Mark Billingham contributes an introduction. This is a book aimed at the general reader rather than the academic, and would make a good stocking filler (though it would have to be quite a large stocking.) The publishers are Remember When, an imprint of Pen & Sword, and the production values are high.
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
I would never make a gumshoe. But the chance to indulge in a little literary detective work is something I find hard to resist – and I’ve been doing a bit of book-sleuthing lately.
It began when I received a catalogue of books for sale from Jamie Sturgeon. He listed a parody of Golden Age detective fiction called Gory Knight (published in 1937, not long after Dorothy L. Sayers produced Gaudy Night.) When I talked to him about the book, he said it was pretty good – but the copy had already been sold. But he suggested I contact Bob Adey and see if he had a copy to sell.
Bob is the world’s leading expert on locked room and impossible crime stories and has an in-depth knowledge of the genre that few can match. He said he did indeed have a copy of the book, and so I bought it.
The co-authors are Margaret Rivers Larminie and Jane Langslow. The day the book arrived in the post, I was flicking through an encyclopaedia of crime fiction and noticed that the eminent crime writer Margaret Yorke’s maiden name was Larminie. Reasoning that there can’t be too many literary Larminies, I got in touch with Margaret and asked her if there was a family connection.
It turned out that there was, although she had not known Margaret Rivers well. Margaret Rivers was a reasonably successful ‘straight’ novelist and Margaret Yorke had copies of those books – but had never heard of Gory Knight. She was fascinated to learn of it, and promptly bought a copy for herself.
Since we first spoke, Margaret has told me more about the literary Larminies, and I’ll continue the story, and add a few comments about Gory Knight itself, in a future post.
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
I enjoyed the first episode of the BBC’s major new series 'Wallander', watching it belatedly as usual. Kenneth Branagh heads a top-notch cast and I felt he caught the humanity of the Swedish detective very well.
The story chosen to introduce the series was not the first Wallander book that Henning Mankell wrote, but rather his CWA Gold Dagger winning novel Sidetracked. It was also the first Mankell that I read, and a good choice to open with, because of the startling and utterly shocking scene with which the story begins – a young girl walks into a rape field and sets fire to herself. It made a great impression on me when I read the story, and the televised version was equally powerful.
It may be heresy to say so, but in some ways I preferred the tv adaptation to the book. The pace was brisk, but more importantly, the build-up to the revelation of the identity of the culprit was handled more deftly. Wallander’s relationships with his father and daughter were nicely judged and the production values high. I shall certainly be watching more of 'Wallander'.
Monday, 15 December 2008
The Private Patient, the latest Adam Dalgleish mystery by P.D. James, has received mixed reviews, but I really enjoyed it and think it perhaps her best since the wonderful Devices and Desires (which is my favourite James novel, and features on my ‘personal best’ list.)
The set-up is compelling. Rhoda Gradwyn, a merciless investigative journalist, has suffered a facial disfigurement since her terrible childhood. She now has the money and, more importantly, the inclination, to undergo cosmetic surgery and she enrols as a patient of an eminent surgeon called Chandler-Powell, whose main clinic, Cheverell Manor, is in Dorset, close to an eerie gathering of ancient stones. But there are people at the Manor who have an assortment of motives for murder, and Rhoda is killed one night – the murder scene is one of the most powerful in a powerful book.
There are so many interesting characters in this novel that James sometimes seems unsure about upon whom to focus her main attention. The relationship between the surgeon and his mistress, for instance, is quite lightly sketched. Because there is so much in the story, one or two aspects of it seem superfluous – especially a tacked-on sub-plot about a brutal attack on a minor character called Annie. The ending seems a bit rushed and unsatisfactory – I had to re-read it to pick up all the nuances (though that might be due to my careless re-reading first time around.)
I mention these quibbles simply because James sets the bar high and is an author to be judged by demanding standards. But make no mistake - this is, overall, a highly impressive traditional mystery. Some might say it is a fine achievement for a detective novelist aged 88. I think a detective novelist of any age would be proud to have written it.
Sunday, 14 December 2008
I’ve been trying to get round to reading Kate Ellis’s latest book, Seeking the Dead, for ages, but life keeps getting in the way. In the meantime she kindly agreed to contribute her thoughts about it to this blog:
‘Seeking the Dead, is set in the ancient Yorkshire city of Eborby (a thinly disguised York) and the story begins when a young woman called Carmel Hennessy arrives in Eborby to start a new job. However, she finds the city gripped by fear because a killer is on the prowl, a killer the press are calling the Resurrection Man because he leaves the naked bodies of his victims in isolated churchyards, looking as though they’ve just crawled from the grave. Carmel knows Detective Inspector Joe Plantagenet through tragic events in her past and, when she starts to receive mysterious threats after sensing a malevolent presence in her new flat, she asks for his help.
My younger son has just graduated from York University and during his time there, I came to know the city quite well. I love its rich and eventful history and its fascinating nooks and crannies. Being the principal city in the north of England in the medieval period, it also has quite a dark past and over the centuries it has seen civil wars, massacres and public executions. It is also reputed to be the most haunted city in England and I must admit that one of York’s better known ghost stories provided my initial inspiration. It was a story that, once heard, stuck in my mind: all the occupants of a house near the Minster died of the plague, except for one girl who was left to starve to death because nobody dared enter the house for fear of infection. It is said that to this day, the unfortunate girl can be seen looking out of a window, pleading for help (although I must add that I didn’t spot her). However, this story planted the germ of an idea in my mind that was to grow into Seeking the Dead.
Joe Planagenet himself is an interesting character. Even though he is relatively young, he has known a lot of tragedy in his past. He was born and raised in Liverpool, son of an Irish mother and a father from Eborby. During a bout of youthful idealism he began to train for the priesthood but then he met his future wife and concluded that a life of celibacy wasn’t for him. Then his life fell apart when his wife died tragically soon after their wedding. And after he was injured in a shooting which killed his colleague, he made the decision to leave Merseyside and make a new start in his father’s city, Eborby. His family’s explanation for his unusual surname is that they are descended from an illegitimate child of King Richard III who, in York, was regarded as a great hero rather than the villain of popular legend.
I’d like to make it clear to all Wesley’s fans that I haven’t abandoned him. His next investigation A Perfect Death is out next spring and I’m working on my fourteenth book in the series at the moment. What I really wanted, however, was to write another, completely different series, with a new setting and a new detective. I’ve found the challenge very rewarding and I’m delighted with the result.
Saturday, 13 December 2008
I seem to be one of the few people who haven’t got round yet to reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Christmas break, and a bit of concentrated reading in between eating and drinking too much, can’t come too soon! Meanwhile, I’ve just received an advance copy of the follow-up, The Girl Who Played With Fire. It’s published by Maclehose Press on 8 January, and it looks good.
Helen Black is a childcare lawyer, and that is, I know, a rewarding but often difficult job. She has, however, managed to find the time to write a couple of crime novels, and the new one, A Place of Safety, is published by Avon on 22 December as a paperback original. The word ‘gritty’ appears in the first line of the press release, and the subject matter isn’t comfortable – an alleged rape of a young refugee.
A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn, is published by Macmillan, but not until 9 March. However, it looks as though this one will be getting a big push on the publicity front. There’s an admiring quote from a very distinguished Macmillan author, Minette Walters, and the publishers describe Nunn as ‘a major new talent in global crime fiction’. Quite a claim. The book is set in South Africa in 1952 and ‘explores a divided society through the frame of a classic murder mystery’. One to keep an eye on.
Friday, 12 December 2008
My latest entry in Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books is another one from Henry Wade. I've previously covered The Dying Alderman in this series. Now for a look at Constable, Guard Thyself!, which dates from 1934. Don't be too put off by the odd, old-fashioned title. It's a decent book by a fine writer.
Actually, the book might with stricter accuracy, given the rank in the Brodshire police force of the murder victim, Captain Scole, have been entitled Chief Constable Guard Thyself! It features death by shooting in the unusual setting of a police station (a plan is provided) and an investigation conducted – once the locals have decided to call in Scotland Yard – by Wade’s regular detective, the pleasingly fallible Inspector Poole.
Wade was willing to experiment with styles and story-lines, and this novel is a reminder of his early contribution to the development of crime fiction based upon police procedure. Wade’s knowledge of police hierarchies and routine surpassed that of contemporaries such as Freeman Wills Crofts, J.J. Connington, and the Coles, and when Poole reminds Sergeant Gower that ‘they’ve cut us very close on our expenses since ‘31’, his words have an authentic ring. (I was a little less impressed by the scene where Poole ‘arranged with the greengrocer a simple vegetable signal…’, but this was long before the elaborations of The Da Vinci Code.)
Occasionally Wade is described by commentators as a ‘plodder’ or a ‘Humdrum’, but I believe this under-values his work. Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, as the splendid name behind the pseudonym suggests, was a pillar of the establishment: a decorated war hero, an alderman and sheriff, who inherited a baronetcy in 1937. Yet, as this book demonstrates, he was not afraid to contemplate the possibility of police malpractice and miscarriages of justice. In some ways he seems in real life to have been the sort of man upon whom other crime writers of the time might well have modelled their own heroes – yet despite the demands of public life, he contributed valuably to the development of the genre for almost three decades.
He demonstrates his commitment to fair-play puzzling in an especially bold fashion here, offering major clues to the murderer’s identity at a very early stage; sadly, they may be too obvious to deceive the astute modern reader. Nevertheless, the book gives an interesting portrayal of police work in the 30s, and remains readable to this day.
Thursday, 11 December 2008
Yesterday evening was very enjoyable, after a long day which began with a board meeting in central Manchester at 8.30 am. During the day I travelled to Liverpool and by 6.30 I was ready for a glass of wine at the fabulous new Waterstone's bookstore that has just opened in the massive new development that is Liverpool One.
Among the attending authors was the comedian and writer Alexei Sayle, whom I hadn't met before. It was also good to see a couple of old friends, romance/saga writers June Francis and Lyn Andrews. (June is pictured with Alexei and me.) Lyn reminded June and me of one of our last get-togethers, with a group of six or seven other writers at Ormskirk, perhaps a decade back. Lyn now spends much of her time in Ireland. She's a mega-seller, but as charming and friendly as person as you could wish to meet.
The shop is truly impressive, ultra-spacious and well designed. I will always be a huge fan and supporter of independent bookstores, but I have to say that this is one of the best Waterstone's I've ever seen, brilliantly located and with staff, including the assistant manager Helen, seen in the photo, whose enthusiasm for books is clearly evident. If you visit Liverpool One (and you really should, if you get the chance), it's well worth a close inspection.
Wednesday, 10 December 2008
I’ve watched again a very early episode in the ‘Jonathan Creek’s series, featuring a mysterious death in a sealed underground tomb. It must have been suicide – yet there are reasons to suspect murder. The plot is pleasingly convoluted, with plenty of twists before the truth is finally revealed.
This is a first rate television mystery, with marvellous chemistry between Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin as the two lead characters. When Quentin left the series, she was replaced by Julia Sawalha, who is quite gorgeous – but I felt that Quentin’s wit and charm were irreplaceable.
One of the stars in this episode was Maureen O’Brien. Maureen, Liverpool born, is an accomplished actress who has appeared in many shows, including the wonderful early 'Taggart'. She is also a successful crime writer, and her novels, which come out rather sporadically due to her acting commitments, are well worth seeking out.
Some years ago, I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Maureen at the late lamented Crime Scene convention, conceived by Maxim Jakubowski and held at the National Film Theatre for a number of years. She is an extremely pleasant lady, and her success in two distinct careers in the creative arts deserves the utmost admiration.
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
For the very first time, a novel of mine has been featured in 'The Literary Review'. Dancing for the Hangman is in the 'And Don't Miss' section, along with books by Frank Tallis, Michael Gilbert, Ann Cleeves and the mega-selling Stieg Larsson.
It is very difficult these days for an author like me, without a big publicity budget, to get significant review coverage in major print publications, so this is a real boost. As is the reaction to the book of the reviewer, Jessica Mann.
Modesty ought to, but I am afraid does not, forbid me from quoting the review:
'True crime is fascinating when it is presented as fiction by an author as skilful as Martin Edwards. This highly original reconstruction of the Crippen murder case gives a new interpretation of the facts : persuasive and original.'
Monday, 8 December 2008
I first met Sophie Hannah at a writing workshop event held at the Brindley Arts Centre in Runcorn, a few years back. I knew two of the other writers involved in the event, June Francis and Margaret Murphy, but Sophie’s name was new to me. Our first encounter was when we were asked to identify which crime writers, living and dead, we most admired. By a weird coincidence, Sophie and I came up with exactly the same names.
I learned that Sophie is a poet who had just turned to writing crime fiction. Before the day was out, I had acquired from her a signed copy of her debut novel, Little Face, but I didn’t get the chance to do more than skim through it too quickly to do it real justice. I’d meant to review it for the Tangled Web site, but someone else beat me to it. Before the opportunity to read the book at my leisure came my way, Sophie had become quite a star. Little Face turned into an international best-seller, and has so far had two successors.
I had the chance, long overdue, really to luxuriate in the story on the flight home from Baltimore recently. It’s a book that opens brilliantly – a young woman called Alice Fancourt returns home not long after giving birth, only to announce that the baby her husband believes to be his is, in fact, not their child at all. It soon becomes apparent that Alice’s apparently idyllic lifestyle is deeply troubled. Her husband displays a sadistic streak and her mother-in-law is too possessive for comfort. Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, the police investigate the mystery of the Fancourt household, and we learn that David Fancourt’s first wife was murdered. Could history be about to repeat itself?
I found the story, especially the first half, not just engrossing but conspicuously well-written. The relationship between the two principal detectives is also intriguingly portrayed. Sophie isn’t by any means the first poet to have turned to crime fiction with great success – one thinks of John Harvey, Cecil Day Lewis, and Roy Fuller among many others – but she has a truly distinctive talent. Her fascination with paradox is part of the secret of her unorthodox plotting and I hope to catch up with her more recent books in the very near future.
Sunday, 7 December 2008
H.H.Munro used the pen-name ‘Saki’, and earned a considerable reputation as writer of elegant, often gleefully cruel short stories prior to his death while serving in the First World War. BBC 4 recently put together three of his best tales under the title ‘Who Killed Mrs De Ropp?’ in an hour-long programme that I thought beautifully done.
The stories are ‘The Storyteller’, ‘The Lumber Room’ (which I was introduced to as a schoolboy one English lesson long ago) and, best of all, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, in which the killer of Mrs De Ropp is revealed.
Saki was not, in any meaningful sense, a crime writer, but ‘Sredni Vashtar’ is a story about a sort of crime. I first came across it as a result of a reference in a classic crime novel, Verdict of Twelve, by Raymond Postgate. Postgate’s book is, arguably, the best novel ever written about the workings of juries, and is one of my favourites. Postgate’s other crime novels were, by comparison, a disappointment, although some people rate them more highly than I do. He became much better known through his Good Food Guide, and he also had a family connection to those crime-writing Fabians of the Golden Age, GDH and Margaret Cole.
As for Saki, he was clearly a complex character (his mother was the aunt of Dornford Yates, another popular yet enigmatic writer.) It’s suggested by some who have studied his life that he was gay, but unable to come to terms with, or at least publicly acknowledge, his sexual orientation. These days his name is, if not forgotten, far from well-known. But to my mind he is one of the best short story writers.
Saturday, 6 December 2008
Overseas publication of British crime novels can be unpredictable. Tastes vary, and what appeals in one country is sometimes less popular in another. My Harry Devlin novels have never been published in Germany, but I'm glad to say that a very good firm, Luebbe, have acquired the Lake District Mysteries. Last year saw the publication of Tote schlafen nicht - that is, The Coffin Trail (they don't go in for literally translated titles - the German edition translates as The Dead Don't Sleep.)
Now the German translation of The Cipher Garden has come out. This is Die Ohne Schuld Sind (my A Level German is rusty, but I think this means Those Who Are Without Guilt). I was glad to receive an author copy this week and I do like the cover artwork.
Friday, 5 December 2008
My latest entry in Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books is Loving Geordie by Andrea Badenoch. I set out below my original review, which appeared at the time of publication in 2002 , followed by a few present day thoughts.
'So soon after the Soham case and the discovery of Milly Dowler’s body, it is unusually difficult to read a book which has at its core the deaths of two young girls – in this case Muriel and Maureen Robson, the 13 year old ‘Angel Twins’, daughters of a local councillor. Andrea Badenoch is, however, a highly skilled writer and she treats the delicate subject matter and her characters with sensitivity and insight. As with her last novel, Blink, she has chosen to locate her story in the past – 1960 – and to have a teenager as a protagonist, in this case Leslie, whose younger brother Geordie falls under suspicion of killing the girls. This is a highly evocative novel, enhanced by a Dansette soundtrack including the likes of Shirley Bassey and the Shadows. Corruption in local government plays a part in the story – indeed, the legendary T. Dan Smith is one of the characters. A depressing reflection is that, 40 years on, child murders continue to occur, as often as serious political chicanery. In her ability to cast light on the darker places of the human psyche, Andrea Badenoch has established herself as one of our most notable crime novelists and this book confirms that reputation.'
Six years on, I'm sorry to say that Andrea's reputation did not develop further. At the time the book came out, she appeared to have recovered from cancer, but the disease returned and she died in 2004, so Loving Geordie was both her fourth and last book. I knew Andrea through the Crime Writers' Association and liked her a lot. She was a writer of quality who definitely does not deserve to be forgotten.
Thursday, 4 December 2008
Every now and then, I contribute reviews to Shots Magazine, an excellent online resource presided over by Mike Stotter and benefiting from the expertise and enthusiasm of a wide range of contributors, including Ali Karim, familiar to most crime blog fans from his work on - for instance - The Rap Sheet.
Mike recently asked me to review a debut thriller set in Kenya and called Bait, written by former journalist Nick Brownlee and I was happy to oblige. The two main protagonists are a one-time Flying Squad cop, Jake Moore, and a detective from Mombasa, Daniel Jouma. This seems likely to be the first of a series, and I’ll be interested to see what the duo get up to next.
I was intrigued to see that the book has been published as a paperback original. It’s a sign of the times, driven by publishing economics and reader preferences. I’m a devotee of the hardback, and hope it never disappears from the shelves. But it seems that, increasingly, books are being published in paperback only – another example, close to my heart of course, is Dancing for the Hangman.
As for Shots, it began life in the 90s as a print magazine, put together by a group of fans and led by a very affable chap called Bob Cartwright. I’ve not heard of Bob for quite a long time, unfortunately, as he ceased to be involved some years back, but although Shots has made the transition from print to online (another sign of the times), it continues to go from strength to strength, and benefits enormously from Mike’s passion for the genre.
Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Crank is a 2006 movie starring Jason Statham as a hit man with an embryonic conscience, who is pumped full of a drug which is intended to kill him in an hour. His assailant, a fellow gangster, leaves him a DVD to explain his fate, but fails to bargain for Statham’s persistence in trying to save himself from a fate even worse than death – that is, approaching death knowing what is going to happen to you, but aware that you are powerless to do anything about it.
So much for the premise of the movie. It is, in more ways than one, an adrenaline-packed thriller, but really it’s just a comic book translated to the silver screen and it certainly didn’t thrill me. Statham is not, at least in the first half of the movie, a character for whom I felt any sympathy at all. In fact, there were moments when I wanted the end to come even sooner than it did. The story-line is so wildly over the top that to say suspension of disbelief is required is a massive under-statement.
The film does have its plus points, including shafts of black humour – often grisly or vulgar, but sometimes genuinely funny, for those not of a sensitive disposition. Nor is it as mindlessly slick as it pretends. But it’s not a film I’d be in a tearing hurry to watch again.
Tuesday, 2 December 2008
I recently added another blog to the blogroll, that of American crime writer Larry Karp, who is also published by Poisoned Pen Press in the US.
An exchange of emails with Larry reminded me of an enjoyable evening I spent at the home he and his wife have, perched above the sea at Seattle, whilst I attended the Left Coast Crime convention last year. The Karps hosted a party for PPP authors and I learned that Larry is not only a crime novelist and a successful medical practioner, but also someone with a lifelong interest in musical boxes. He puts his vast knowledge of his favourite subject to excellent use in novels such as The Music Box Murders (1999) and shared these thoughts on his great enthusiasm with me the other day:
‘ Antique music boxes manufactured in Switzerland during the early and mid-nineteenth century interest me on many levels. For one thing, they're not "music machines;" they're real musical instruments that play themselves. They may sometimes com across as bell-like or harp-like, but their sound is unique. The hardened tuned steel comb is the actual instrument, an advanced version of the African kalimba, or "thumb piano." The steel pins in the rotating brass cylinder hold the musical arrangement, being set to pluck particular notes at just the right time. The flattened steel spring is the power source, the revolving air brake is the speed control, and the wooden case is the amplifier. Batteries not included.
These instruments were invented, then produced, by Swiss watch and clockmakers, and the precision of their engineering - all done before the advent of power tools - is astonishing. Let cylinder pins or comb teeth be set as little as a thousandth of an inch wrong, and the music might be ruined.
Most impressive of all, music boxes are musical time capsules. What we hear on them is the popular music of their day, what people were humming in their homes and on the streets - folk tunes, music-hall tunes, and best of all, operatic arias and overtures. Rossini is well-represented, as are Mozart, Verdi, Bellini, and Donizetti. But you'll also hear selections from operas never performed in our time, sometimes by composers long forgotten.’
Monday, 1 December 2008
I’ve met Mo Hayder briefly a number of times since reading her debut novel, Birdman, not long after it came out. She’s an international best-seller, and a famously attractive lady, but even more important, she’s always struck me as both charming and genuinely friendly. After bumping into her at Bouchercon, it struck me that it was high time I read another of her books, so I was pleased to have the chance while on holiday in Barcelona to devour her latest, Ritual.
For this book, Mo has brought back her original detective, Jack Caffery, but has transferred him to a new job in the West Country. Even more central to the story, though, is a new cop, Sergeant ‘Flea’ Marley, a specialist diver with (you guessed it!) a troubled past. The story opens with a compelling scene, in which Flea discovers a human hand in the harbour at Bristol and soon the complications are coming thick and fast.
Mo Hayder’s books are not for the faint-hearted. This is a gruesome story, with no shortage of mutilated body parts. And I’ve never been excessively keen on books which emphasise blood and gore. But I must say that I found this a compelling read, and there were passages of writing which struck me as quite outstanding. There is nothing about diving as a pastime that appeals to me, yet the descriptions of Flea’s underwater work are very well done, and kept even me hooked. The characterisation of Flea and Caffery is also expertly managed. Mo Hayder can write much better than most authors of chunky airport thrillers.
Finally, the inclusion at the end of the author’s own thoughts about the novel adds an extra layer of interest. It’s a device that I hope other publishers will imitate. Meanwhile, I’m sure this book will further enhance Mo Hayder’s considerable reputation.
Sunday, 30 November 2008
Disaster movies were much in vogue in my student days – The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and plenty more – but they haven’t been quite so common in recent years. But The Day after Tomorrow is a very competent example of the genre, starring Dennis Quaid as Jake Hall, an expert on climatology, who warns a sceptical Vice President of the risk of a climatic disaster. Ian Holm, playing a British scientist, is more sympathetic and needless to say, the dire warnings of impending doom are soon fulfilled.
Jake has a troubled relationship with his son Sam, who together with a couple of friends is in New York for a student event. All of a sudden, freak weather conditions assault the Northern Hemisphere and the US President belatedly orders evacuation to the south – this offers the opportunity for a few ironic thrusts, including the temporary closure of the Mexican border by the Mexican authorities, to deter illegal immigrants from the States. Sam and his pals hole up in a library, following Jake’s instruction that they must not risk going outside in the desperate conditions, while Jake and a couple of colleagues trek up through the snow to rescue them.
I enjoyed this film. Quaid and Holm, as usual, do a very professional job, and the scenes featuring the survivors in New York are memorable – especially when Sam and the others are attacked by a pack of wolves.
The other thought that struck me was this. The disbelieving Vice President says near the start of the film that the world economy is as fragile as its climate. Maybe the next big budget disaster movie will feature the recent catastrophes on Wall Street…..
Saturday, 29 November 2008
Tuesday's launch of Dancing for the Hangman and the short story competition prize giving was one of my highlights of the year. Here are a few more photos, which I hope give a hint of the magnificence of St George's Hall to those who are unfamiliar with it. My thanks for the pix go to Jane Gallagher, Tony Higginson, Clare Dudman and Ray Farley.
As well as an interview on Radio City, I featured in Thursday's edition of The Liverpool Daily Post. What was wildly unlikely about this (as anyone who knows me and my clothes sense, or lack of it, will confirm) was that the piece was in the 'style' column.
Meanwhile, two authors of highly regarded blogs, Maureen and Nan, have been commenting on my Lake District Myteries:
Letters From A Hill Farm
Their positive reactions to the books are really helpful, because it is so difficult nowadays for midlist writers like me, lacking mega publicity budgets, to have readers' attention drawn to our work.
And as if that wasn't enough, this blog has been featured on sites as diverse as the discussion forum of A House is not a Homepage (Mark Meister's admirable Burt Bacharach site) and, in a discussion about whether blogging can be lucrative, Iain Dale's Diary, one of the most prominent of all the British political blogs.
Friday, 28 November 2008
For this week’s entry in Patti Abbott’s series about forgotten books, I decided to make a choice that fits in with the Crippen theme of this week’s posts, to coincide with publication of my own bit of fictionalised Crippenology, Dancing for the Hangman.
The Crippen story has inspired a good many novels, as well as true crime books and essays. I’m especially keen on Peter Lovesey’s The False Inspector Dew, but as this one earned Peter a CWA Gold Dagger, I don’t think it quite counts as a ‘forgotten’ book – nor should it be.
One effort that has certainly sunk into oblivion is Ursula Bloom’s The Girl Who Loved Crippen. Bloom was a prolific and very successful writer of romantic fiction, and a freelance journalist who made quite a bit of money in the 1950s after discovering the true identity of Crippen’s mistress Ethel Le Neve. Le Neve took a different name, married a man called Smith and had a couple of children, and lived for more than half a century after she (unlike her lover) was acquitted of murder and escaped the gallows. She hid her true identity so well that her husband apparently went to the grave not knowing that his missus was one of Edwardian England’s most legendary ‘scarlet women’.
Bloom befriended Ethel and wrote a series of articles about her, while maintaining her privacy. She also turned the story of Ethel’s affair with the meek little doctor into a novel.
Unfortunately, The Girl Who Loved Crippen does not have much to recommend it other than as a historical curiosity. It’s a slushy romance which plays fast and loose with the facts and certainly does not get under Ethel’s skin. For once, I’m afraid, this is a forgotten book that probably deserves to be forgotten.
Thursday, 27 November 2008
In the run-up to the publication of Dancing for the Hangman, I’ve added (or rather, my industrious webmaster has added) a new page to my website that covers the book and various aspects of the story of Dr Crippen’s misadventures. There is background detail about the facts of the case, suggested questions for readers’ group discussions and a photo gallery.
As with other pages of the website, I’m planning to develop these materials as time goes by. Whilst blog posts tend to be more topical, I see the website as a resource with the potential to carry a great deal of information for people interested in crime fiction and the writing of it generally, as well as in my books. (Of course, I hope that some visitors who are among the vast numbers who have never read my books will be tempted to sample one or two of them…)
There are also new pages on the website dealing with the Detection Club and the Crime Writers’ Association. They aren’t in any sense ‘official’ pages of these organisations, but meant to give interested people more information than is readily available elsewhere. These pages too will be expanded in weeks to come. Meanwhile, here are more pix from Tuesday night's launch of the book and competition prize giving.
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to St George's Hall in Liverpool (my photo really doesn't do the illuminated building sufficient justice), and gave many of his famous readings in the elegant surroundings of The Concert Room. Last night that same room was the venue for a truly memorable event, when I launched Dancing for the Hangman and we announced the winners of the Mace & Jones short story competition to celebrate Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture.
There were about a hundred people in attendance, and the guest speaker was Phil Redmond. Phil is deputy chair of the Liverpool Culture Company, and famous for his work on television, including the creation of 'Brookside' and 'Hollyoaks'.
The winner of the competition, and £500, was locally based Cathy Roberts - who told me she lives in a boat moored at the Albert Dock. Entries came in from such far flung places as India and New Zealand, with a top 10 entry from Spain; the full list of winners can be found on the Mace & Jones website. Suffice to say that, as ever, it was very difficult picking the best stories.
Earlier in the day I'd been interviewed about the competition and the new book for Radio City by Duncan Bracks. The radio station operates from the top of the Beacon, which used to be a revolving restaurant when I first arrived in Liverpool in 1980 (I once had dinner there - literally a moving experience!) The view on a sunny day - and it was very bright yesterday - is quite spectacular. And you can just about make out the lights from the Beacon at night on the left side of the photo.
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
One of the joys of blogging – maybe the greatest joy - is that it can put you in touch with interesting people whom you would never encounter otherwise. Andrew Rose is a case in point. He’s a barrister and true crime writer, but we’ve never met. He got in touch with me having read an earlier post on this blog about the role played in the Crippen trial by the renowned pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury. And last year, Andrew published a new biography of Spilsbury called Lethal Witness, which casts new light on the man, and on the quality of the damning evidence that he so often gave in capital cases.
It turns out that Andrew and I have a couple of friends in common – another reminder that it’s a very small world – and as one more coincidence, I have a copy of another book written by Andrew, back in the 90s. It’s a study of the Fahmy case, Scandal at the Savoy, which is both very readable and carefully researched.
I have to confess that I haven’t read Lethal Witness yet, but I shall repair the omission very soon. In the meantime, it’s been fascinating to debate some aspects of the Crippen case with Andrew. He appeared on the Channel 5 programme in which it was suggested that the flesh found in Crippen’s cellar didn’t belong to Mrs Crippen – a theory I find intriguing but unlikely – and his professional expertise in criminal law gives his views extra weight. Some people think that because I’m a crime writer and a lawyer, I must specialise in criminal law. But the truth is, I’m an employment lawyer and I’ve never conducted a criminal case in my life.
Monday, 24 November 2008
The publication of Dancing for the Hangman is a nice excuse for a variety of celebrations. Last Wednesday evening I was in Formby, half-way between Liverpool and Southport, for a pleasurable event at Café d’Art. It was organised by Tony Higginson from the local indie bookshop, Pritchard’s. The format of the evening was that I was interviewed by Jane Gallagher – we did something similar three years ago, when The Cipher Garden was first published, and it seemed like a good moment for a reprise to coincide with the publication of the new book.
Jane must have an extremely good memory, for she remembered that, on my previous visit, I’d been rather struck by the café’s ambience and mused idly about including such a place in a scene in a future novel. As it happens, I did indeed use the setting in The Arsenic Labyrinth – but transplanted to Kendal in Cumbria and changed around a bit. It’s the scene of a rendezvous between Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind.
Jane is a local journalist and our paths have crossed on many occasions – she once wrote a feature about our home for the ‘Real Rooms’ column in the Liverpool Daily Post – and among her accomplishments, she has become a highly successful blogger. In fact, she has two main blogs, one dealing with matters literary (see the new link on my blogroll) and another, very well visited, blog, Work That Wardrobe, dealing with clothes and fashion. Now there is nobody less competent when it comes to elegant clothes and fashion than me, but even I can recognise hers as a very appealingly personal take on the subject.
Jane is also writer in residence at a prison and, as if all this, freelance p.r. work and bringing up a family wasn’t enough, she’s currently working on her first novel. I haven’t read the manuscript, but Jane is a high calibre writer whom any publisher is bound to find very marketable. I have little doubt that she has the potential to achieve just as much success as a novelist as she has in her various other activities.
Sunday, 23 November 2008
It’s always a good week when the latest issue of CADS arrives. I have a copy of every magazine that Geoff Bradley has produced over a twenty-year span, and each of them contains something unexpected and fascinating. CADS 55 is no exception.
The headline item is ‘Detective Writers in England’, an article Agatha Christie wrote for publication in a Russian magazine in 1945 at the request of the Ministry of Information. It’s been freshly discovered by that tireless researcher Tony Medawar, and is an interesting read. It is by no means bland (she refers to Lord Peter Wimsey as ‘a good man spoiled’ and describes his beloved Harriet as ‘tiresome’) and is a real find.
Just as good is an article by David Ellis about Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank, an inexplicably overlooked masterpiece that formed the basis of that wonderful film Kind Hearts and Coronets.
There are many other gems. Two articles covered authors about whom I knew nothing – Mildred Davis and A. Fielding. I was especially tempted by Josef Hoffmann’s article to read something by Davis. Does any reader of this blog know her work.
I greatly enjoyed the first part of Nick Kimber’s article about the fascinating, maddening S.S. Van Dine, and the other authors covered in detail include Arthur Upfield, John Rhode (an excellent piece by Ian H.Godden) and Harry Kemelman. The focus is on traditional mysteries, but there are reviews of some newer books, and I was pleased to see an article by fellow blogger Rafe McGregor. Rafe is one of the rising generation of crime writers and commentators and a name to look out for.
I’ve long been a contributor to CADS, and this issue includes a couple of reviews of my own. But the reason I like it is because Geoff Bradley’s labour of love has created, in an overcrowded world of crime commentary, something with a unique flavour. If you are interested in buying a copy, Geoff’s email is Geoffcads@aol.com
Saturday, 22 November 2008
Encouraged by the response to the first Saturday Selection, I've decided to continue with the concept as a means of highlighting recent or forthcoming titles. So here is news of a couple of very interesting new short story collections.
I’m delighted that Tangled Web UK, one of my favourite online crime resources, has asked me to review a new book of short stories written by the late Michael Gilbert, one of my all-time writing heroes. Gilbert was a prolific short story writer, and several posthumous collections have appeared, but A Pity about the Girl and other stories, published by Robert Hale, is expected to be the last. (A previous collection, The Mathematics of Murder, is very hard to find and I've been looking for a copy for ages - so if anyone has a copy they'd be willing to lend or let go, do get in touch.)
John Cooper, an expert on classic detective fiction, furnishes a short but informative introduction to this book, outlining Gilbert’s achievements in the field of short fiction. This collection features characters familiar to Gilbert fans, including the lawyer Henry Bohun, and includes both a ghost story and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I intend to devour it imminently and I hope the review will appear soon.
Killer Year (sub-title, Stories to die for) is a gathering of short thriller stories edited by Lee Child and published by Mira. These are new stories by writers whose names are (with a few notable exceptions such as Ken Bruen and Sean Chercover) unfamiliar to me, but they look promising and this is another book that I’m looking forward to reading.
Friday, 21 November 2008
My latest entry in Patti Abbott's series of Forgotten Books is Woman of Straw, a novel by an author who is also, as far as I can tell, well and truly forgotten. She is the French novelist, Catherine Arley, a talented exponent of psychologically suspenseful Eurocrime.
Translated by Mervyn Savill, this French suspense novel was published by the Collins Crime Club in 1957. It is to my mind much more effective than Arley’s interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory Dead Man’s Bay. Like so much of the work produced by Arley’s brilliant contemporaries Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the story has a definite filmic quality; it comes as no surprise to learn that in 1964, the novel was turned into a movie, with a starry cast including Sean Connery, Gina Lollobrigida and Ralph Richardson. Reputedly, the film earned Connery – who had just completed the first two Bond movies – his first million dollar pay check. The screenplay seems to have differed greatly from the source material, but reviews suggest it is worth watching, although at the time of writing I have not been able to track it down.
I can, however, recommend Arley’s book. The premise is intriguing: Hildegarde Meisner responds to an advertisement placed by a millionaire seeking a female companion with a view to marriage and soon finds herself conspiring to become the rich man’s wife – and heiress, should he die. Hildegarde is a woman on the make, but nevertheless she attracts the reader’s sympathy as she finds herself enmeshed in an ingenious criminal scheme, with wheelchair-bound Carl Richmond at its heart. The mystery is gripping and its resolution dark.
Thursday, 20 November 2008
Andrew Klavan is a first-rate thriller writer, whose work I have admired for a long time. Years ago, he wrote a number of fast-paced novels under the pen-name Keith Peterson and I remember enjoying one which was called The Scarred Man. As a screenwriter, he was responsible for adapting Simon Brett’s non-series psychological suspense novel A Shock to the System and more recently he’s produced a number of highly successful blockbusters, including True Crime. True Crime is a classic race-against-time story, which handles conventional material in an adroit and compelling way.
I therefore fell upon his latest book, Empire of Lies, with a great deal of enthusiasm. The main character is Jason Harrow, who has got over a wild past and become a Christian conservative leading a respectable and principled life. But he is dragged out of his comfort zone by a call from a former lover and soon finds himself plunged into a terrorist plot.
I relish the idea that Klavan is hostile to political correctness, and I like the idea that he rebels against the notion that literature is a no-go area for people who hold conservative views. He argues on his blog for conservatives to express their values with ‘courage, openness and honesty.’ Fair enough. But I must admit that I did not warm to Empire of Lies as much as I have to previous Klavans. The story-line did not grab me, and I felt that possibly he was allowing his personal views to intrude into the story to too great an extent. So, a bit of a let-down as far as I was concerned. But it’s only fair to add that various other people have responded very positively to this novel. And one thing is for sure. Klavan is an interesting and intelligent writer and I shall certainly read him again.
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
It is very difficult to work in the same territory as Barbara Vine and not be completely overshadowed. But Morag Joss managed it with a quite magnificent novel, worthy of Vine at her best, Half Broken Things. It’s one of the best novels of psychological suspense that I have read in the last ten years.
So I approached the televised version of the book – which appeared on the small screen last year; I’m characteristically late in catching up with it – with mixed feelings. I wanted the tv programme to be as good as the novel, but doubted whether it would be possible.
Happily, my fears were unfounded. Thanks to a superb cast, led by the delightful and compelling Penelope Wilton, here at her considerable best, the screen version was gripping from start to finish. This is a wonderful story of self-deception, involving Wilton as a slightly barmy house-sitter who ‘adopts’ an odd couple who have only just met, and the young woman’s soon to be born baby. What follows is poignant and terrible.
If you haven’t read the book, or seen the tv adaptation, you have a treat in store.
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
Faber and Faber have a long track record of publishing important and interesting work, and some of the classic titles in the company’s backlist are celebrated in a 2009 Diary that they have kindly sent to me. Effective marketing, because I'm impressed. It is an attractively produced publication and a well-conceived reminder of the calibre of their books.
According to the introduction to the diary, T.S. Eliot joined Michael Faber on the company’s board ‘and the story goes that Walter De La Mare suggested adding a second, fictitious Faber to balance the company name’ – a story I find rather appealing. Auden was published by Faber, and so too were Hughes and Plath, as well as major dramatists such as Stoppard and Osborne. Novelists on the list have included William Golding, Lawrence Durrell, Paul Auster and Milan Kundera.
Faber have also published first-rate crime writers,including a lawyer-novelist whom I have long admired, the late Cyril Hare as well as such major figures as P.D.James and Michael Dibdin.
This generously illustrated diary strikes me as a splendid way of celebrating the quality of Faber’s output, as well as eighty years of publishing. Long may they continue.
Monday, 17 November 2008
I’ve dedicated Dancing for the Hangman to Mandy Little. She’s my literary agent, and has been since I first sent out the original manuscript of what became my debut novel, All the Lonely People. Mandy liked the story, but suggested some (very reasonable) changes and then found a publisher for the book.
She and I have been together ever since, and I greatly appreciate her loyalty and commitment – not least because I certainly haven’t earned her a vast amount of money in commission. Nevertheless, she has always had faith in my work, and that means a lot to any writer.
Mandy encouraged me to write a novel about the Crippen case several years ago, and it’s fair to say that Dancing for the Hangman would not have existed without her prompting. Not so long ago, she took me to Hilldrop Crescent, not too far from her offices, to see the site of Number 39 (the actual house was destroyed in the Blitz) where the Crippens lived. The excursion was followed by a very enjoyable lunch and the hours flew by, as they always do in her company.
The relationship between author and agent is very important. You need to feel you have someone batting on your side. I know plenty of authors who are disappointed in their agents, and this must be very disheartening. I’m lucky to have Mandy – hence the dedication.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
I was very pleased to be sent a review copy of the latest Adam Dalgleish mystery, The Private Patient, written by P.D.James. I’ve realised that I’ve barely mentioned James' work in almost a year of blog posts, and that is quite an omission, not only because she is undoubtedly one of the major British crime writers of the past half century, but also because I have a great deal of admiration for her and her work.
P.D. James is now 88, and she is certainly one of ‘the great and the good’ – her c.v. is deeply impressive, and she is a member of the House of Lords. As she points out in the dedication to this book, she has been published by Faber for ‘forty six unbroken years’ – a remarkable achievement by any standards. Her first book, Cover Her Face, was conventional detective fiction, but written nonetheless with a considerable assurance, and as her confidence grew, she established herself as a major figure in the genre. I’ve read almost all of her books, including an interesting non-fiction story about a real life case, The Maul and The Pear Tree, and my favourites are Death of an Expert Witness, Innocent Blood, A Certain Justice and, finest of all in my opinion, Devices and Desires.
James excels at ‘closed communities’. Dalgleish is her most popular character, and he was very well portrayed on television first by Roy Marsden and then by Martin Shaw, but I also liked Cordelia Gray from An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. (Cordelia’s reappearance, in The Skull Beneath the Skin, struck me as a rare misfire, and the television series featuring Cordelia didn’t do much for me either.) Of one thing I am certain - her best books will stand the test of time. She is one of the finest British detective novelists of this or any other generation.
Saturday, 15 November 2008
Here's a new idea for this blog. I come across plenty of interesting books, either just published or soon to appear, and today I'm going to give a quick preview of some that have caught my eye. I may review some of them more fully at a later date (I won't review every single one - definitely not enough hours in the day!) If the idea of an occasional or regular Saturday Selection of this kind appeals, do let me know.
The Watcher was published last month by Avon as a paperback original (a rapidly growing trend; my Dancing for the Hangman is the first paperback original I've produced) and it's written by Grace Monroe. In fact, the authorial name conceals a partnership between Maria Thompson and Linda Watson-Brown. It features Brodie McLennan and the discovery of a woman's corpse at the foot of Edinburgh Castle, with the message 'more will die' written on her naked body, and it's hailed as an example of 'Tartan Noir'. Brodie is described as 'a headstrong young lawyer'. One or two of them about in real life, let alone fiction!
The Scandalous Life of the Lawless Sisters, published by Faber, is a just-published book by Philip Ardagh. I know his work from his very entertaining and popular children's stories, including the Eddie Dickens books. My son is a big fan of Ardagh, and this book applies new captions to pictures from Punch of 1880. Looks good.
Exposed, by Alex Kava, is published by Mira in December. FBI criminal profiler Maggie O'Dell has to expose a killer 'before her time runs out'. The killer's weapon 'is a deadly virus, virtually invisible and totally unexpected.' I haven't read Nebraska-based Kava's work previously, and her reviews on Amazon are somewhat mixed (though there is, of course, a debate about the merits of Amazon reviews) but her sales are apparently very high, so she looks like someone to watch.
Friday, 14 November 2008
My contribution this week to Patti Abbott's series Friday's Forgotten Books is one of my all-time favourite American crime novels, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock.
Fearing's name is less well known than those of some of the authors featured in this series of mystery classics, but his stunning thriller is undoubtedly one to be remembered on merit. Fearing was a notable poet in America’s Depression era, but with this novel, first published in 1946, he struck gold. The remarkable plot has been copied by other writers and has formed the basis of two oustanding films. The first starred Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, while the excellent remake ‘No Way Out’ starring Kevin Costner offered a fresh twist on an already complex story.
The writing of the novel is clipped and tense, the characterisation economical yet witty, and the pace frenetic. George Stroud is a charming, yet amoral executive working for a magazine empire run by Earl Janoth. Stroud embarks on a dangerous affair with Janoth’s mistress and when Janoth kills the woman, Stroud is the only witness who can pin him to the crime. The catch is that Janoth does not know that the man he saw in a shadowy street was Stroud – and he gives Stroud the job of tracking down the witness. Stroud knows that, if he is identified, he will be killed, and he has to use all his ruthless ingenuity to keep one step ahead of his desperate boss. This short novel is an unmissable triumph of style and plot. Not surprisingly, Fearing was unable in his subsequent books to match it.
Thursday, 13 November 2008
A film that boasts input from the likes of that late, lamented pair Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella and a cast led by George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson has a great deal going for it. So it’s no surprise that Michael Clayton won a great deal of acclaim when it reached the screen last year.
It’s billed as a thriller, a story about a corporate law firm’s ‘fixer’, played very effectively by Clooney, who is involved on the fringe of a law suit that in its longevity rivals Jarndyce versus Jarndyce – a mega-conglomerate called U-North is being sued by a group of plaintiffs whose health has been damaged by its products. A colleague (Tom Wilkinson, whom I have long admired) has a mental collapse after failing to take his medication: he suffers from bipolar disorder. But it also becomes clear that the sick, troubled man has stumbled upon a secret that could destroy U-North, and, amongst others, their brittle in-house counsel (Swinton, serving up another good performance.) Pollack, as so often, makes a relatively brief, but telling appearance as another of Clooney’s associates. The production values are consistently high.
So, with all these great ingredients, why didn’t I enjoy the film more? It has something to do with the structure of the story-line, which I thought bordered on the inept. For reasons unclear, much of the tale is told by way of flashback – a tricky device that needs more justification than we have here. It’s not an excessively long film, but still the action often drags.
Much of the problem lies with the basic story – strip away the window-dressing, and it’s neither original nor compelling. The bad guys go to so much trouble to eliminate Clooney and Wilkinson that I couldn’t fathom why they allowed the catastrophic memo that seals their fate to see the light of day. Things improve towards the end, but overall I was disappointed. It’s a thriller that seldom thrills. Far better to describe it as a character-based drama, with some very good acting.
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
I mentioned Sarah Caudwell in relation to her ‘forgotten book’, Thus Was Adonis Murdered. In fact, Sarah was someone whom I came to know slightly and I found her a fascinating companion.
We came across each other when I was asked by the ‘New Law Journal’ to write an article about her work – the commission came because we were two of the very few British lawyers writing crime fiction in those days, the others including Frances Fyfield and my long-time hero Michael Gilbert. I enjoyed talking to Sarah over the phone –she was a very charismatic, off-beat individual. Later, we met in London, and had a drink at the bar in the heart of the city which she had fictionalised as a watering place frequented by her barrister characters.
In person, she was striking to say the latest – the only woman I can recall socialising with who ever smoked a pipe, which she did incessantly (and since she died of lung cancer, it may be that, sadly, it proved to be the death of her.) She was fiercely intelligent, and very witty indeed. I wish she'd written more short stories, for 'An Acquaintance with Mr Collins' is superb, a modern classic of the short mystery form
I have the feeling she was a deeply complex, and very private, character, but her outward demeanour was jovial and gregarious. We met again a few times, for example at the 1995 Bouchercon, when a historical play she had written was performed, but I hardly saw her after that as she struggled with writer’s block, or possibly with some other demons.
Sarah Caudwell was a one-off, both as a person and a writer. I certainly won’t forget her.
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
11 November is always one of the most sobering days of the year. Even though it was many years ago, I vividly recall a visit to the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Very moving.
Today is perhaps also a suitable occasion to recall a classic detective story which not only opens on Armistice, or Remembrance Day, but in which the coincidence of events on that particular day is absolutely crucial to the story.
The book in question is The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I was in my teens when I first read it, but a few years ago I caught up, very belatedly, with the tv version starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey. It's not the best book Sayers ever wrote, but it nevertheless deserves to be ranked as a classic.
Speaking of Sayers, I've just been reading a tribute to her by Michael Gilbert, which is included in Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration, edited by Alzina Stone Dale. Gilbert knew her mainly through their many encounters at the Detection Club. It's a frank and fascinating personal memoir, written by a man who admired Sayers, but wasn't blind to her idiosyncrasies. He describes her combination of sophistication and immaturity in a compelling way that brings Sayers alive as well as any of the lengthier biographies.
Monday, 10 November 2008
The first copy of Dancing for the Hangman has arrived at Edwards Towers. It’s always an exciting experience to see one’s own book in its final form for the very first time. All those months (years, perhaps) of labour – at last in a shape suitable for sending out to an unsuspecting world.
I’m pleased with the look and feel of the book – Flambard Press are a smallish publisher, but over the years they have built up a very good reputation for quality, with major award successes and a very good roster of authors (including, in the crime field, Val McDermid and Harry Keating). It seems to me that they have done a terrific job. (The image above is the original artwork, not the final version, by the way.)
Of course, the pleasure is tinged with anxiety. Gone is the opportunity to fiddle yet again with the text – and, as someone who constantly revises, the thought that I’m no longer able to improve what I’ve written is inevitably rather agonising. And what will readers think of it? Are any reviewers likely to be interested?
The questions are more acute in the case of a book like this, which is so very different from my other novels. I’m conscious that Dancing for the Hangman doesn’t easily sit in a conventional category of crime fiction, and is not obviously ‘commercial’.
Yet this is a book I’m really glad to have written. So far, the reaction of those who have read it has been intensely positive, and that’s a great reassurance, especially as the advance comments from the likes of Frances Fyfield (whose quote now adorns the front cover), Andrew Taylor and Anne Perry come from novelists whose standards are high.
So I shall keep my fingers crossed and hope that readers of this blog are similarly enthusiastic!
Sunday, 9 November 2008
P.D. James is one of a number of writers whose imagination is sparked by setting. Many of her novels have sprung from a striking image of a distinctive and memorable place – The Black Tower and Devices and Desires are good examples, and I imagine that The Private Patient, about which I shall post before long, was also inspired in part by the image of an ancient stone circle, such as features in the book.
In the past, my ideas from stories didn’t tend to originate with a specific geographical location or feature. But this has begun to change, not least as I’ve absorbed thoughts about developing stories from other writers. The panel on settings at Bouchercon was quite thought-provoking – one question from the audience about where else we might set a book caused me to suggest Wales as a location I’d like to use (although I don’t know South Wales too well, I’m a lifelong devotee of North and Mid Wales.) This led to a mixed reaction (one fellow author commented that crime novels set in Wales tend not to succeed, though I don’t share that view) but the discussion was certainly interesting.
In one sense, ‘The Bookbinder’s Apprentice’ is the most successful thing I have written, because it won the CWA award - yet it is rare among my stories in having been directly inspired by a trip to Venice and a few moments spent gazing into the window of a musty bookbinder’s shop.
So although, when I went to Barcelona, I didn’t have a plot in mind, I had been there for less than twenty four hours when the idea for a short story set in the city came to me unbidden. Not quite sure when I’m going to write it, though. Or whether I will be able to resist the urge to call it ‘Gaudi Night'….
Saturday, 8 November 2008
When visiting somewhere new, I always like to seize the chance, if possible, to read a book set there. So my trip to Barcelona offered the ideal opportunity to sample a debut novel by a Spanish academic, Teresa Solana, called A Not So Perfect Crime. It’s just published by Bitter Lemon, who have made available some quite splendid books not previously available in English translation.
The novel is told by Eduard, one of two twin brothers, who run a detective agency together. In fact, it’s more or less a phoney operation, since neither of them is much good as a detective, and they invent a secretary to impress clients, spraying perfume around in their little office before pretending the girl has gone off on an errand. The office even has false doors leading nowhere, to give a grand impression to visitors.
When a top Catalan politician asks them to investigate whether his gorgeous wife is having an affair with a painter for whom she has apparently modelled. The shameless Borja, much the more entrepreneurial of the twins, extracts large sums of money from the client for doing very little, but when the wife ends up dead, our heroes find they may have bitten off more than they can chew.
This is a funny and enjoyable novel, and I was amused by the coincidence that one scene of the book took place in a café where we’d had lunch twenty-four hours earlier. The twins are a memorable duo and there are some laugh-aloud scenes. The element of the book that satirises Catalan politics rather passed me by, but this didn’t spoil the fun. The zany plot is a mess – but, to some extent, that is the point: this is a sort of ‘anti-detective’ novel. If Solana brings the twins back, she will almost certainly have to treat the story-line more seriously, but I hope this doesn’t deter her from a follow-up. Such good characters deserve to live again.