At Left Coast Crime in Bristol, two and a half years ago, I attended a party held by the publishers Crème de la Crime. Among other things, there was a reading by a new writer called David Harrison from his book Sins of the Father. It was a gruesome and memorable scene. I later read the book and found it enjoyable.
Now, David’s career has taken a new direction. He has metamorphosed into a writer called Tom Bale, and he describes his next publication as a thriller rather than a crime novel. He tells me that, when searching for an agent, he suddenly received four offers of representation and found himself in the surreal position of having to interview prospective agents in order to choose one of them.
David (or Tom?) takes up the story:
’I signed with Tif Loehnis at Janklow & Nesbit UK, and after a bit of rewriting the book was ready to submit to publishers. Early feedback was positive, up to a point: they loved the opening, but felt a bit let down by what followed. Brooding over this, I suddenly realised what I'd done wrong. After an explosive start, when a young woman gets caught up in a killing spree in a small Sussex village, the story jumped forward several months. In doing that, the tension was lost. What it needed was to continue from the moment the massacre ended.
Around this time, my agent had approached Preface, a brand new imprint at Random House. The editor, industry legend Rosie de Courcy, had read the opening and loved it. A meeting was arranged, and in a remarkable show of faith Rosie offered me a two-book contract on the strength of my ideas for a drastic rewrite, which basically entailed ditching about 90% of the first version. How Rosie knew I was capable of such of a task, I have no idea: I certainly had my doubts in the months that followed.
But now, at last, it's done, and the consensus seems to be that this version is infinitely better than the original. Skin and Bones is scheduled for UK publication in January 2009, and translation rights have been sold to France and Germany.’
So, after years of striving to become a published novelist, David now has a chance to make it big. I shall keep my fingers crossed for him.
Sunday, 31 August 2008
At Left Coast Crime in Bristol, two and a half years ago, I attended a party held by the publishers Crème de la Crime. Among other things, there was a reading by a new writer called David Harrison from his book Sins of the Father. It was a gruesome and memorable scene. I later read the book and found it enjoyable.
Saturday, 30 August 2008
I haven’t read as much of Ian McEwan’s work as I should have done since I first came across his early, eerie short stories when I was a student. This isn’t due to any lack of appreciation of his work – he is a fine writer. Atonement is widely regarded as one of his best novels, and I seized the chance the other day to watch the recent film version.
It’s a film of different parts and I didn’t find all of them equally compelling. However, the crucial first section, with a ‘Golden Age’ type of setting in a 1930s country house, is quite brilliant. A young girl observes a relationship developing between a couple of young lovers, and misinterprets their relationship. I thought this splendidly and subtly done. The girl, Briony, then does something terrible which will destroy the couple’s lives. Again, this part of the story is convincing, moving, and emotionally very dark
The war-time scenes that follow involve a complete change of mood and setting and I wasn’t sure that this worked perfectly (though I should add that many good critics disagree.) The final scenes – that featuring Vanessa Redgrave and the late Anthony Minghella in particular - do, however, bring the story to a very effective and poignant conclusion.
I thought this a good film, despite having a few reservations. But I suspect the book is even better.
Friday, 29 August 2008
In the week of the official paperback publication of the latest Harry Devlin, I thought it would be good to include on my website a map of some of the key locations. And, thanks to my hard-working webmaster, the idea has now become a reality.
Do take a look and let me know what you think - and whether there might be some merit in a Lake District map, as well:
Harry Devlin's Liverpool
Thursday, 28 August 2008
As well as featuring in After the Funeral, Abney Hall also provided the inspiration for the title story in Agatha Christie’s collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, published in book form in 1960. In her introduction, Christie explained that the story:
‘is an indulgence of my own, since it recalls to me, very pleasurably, the Christmases of my youth. After my father’s death, my mother and I always spent Christmas with my brother-in-law’s family in the north of England – and what superb Christmases they were for a child to remember! Abney Hall had everything! The garden boasted a waterfall, a stream and a tunnel under the drive!’ She dedicates the book ‘to the memory of Abney Hall, its kindness and its hospitality’.
I’m not sure what Christie would make of the modern Abney Park, but thank goodness the house has not been razed to the ground. Christie wasn’t an excessively sentimental woman, and I think that she would take the view that, although the local authority could do a bit more to keep the gardens in good shape, the essential character of the grounds has not been lost. The waterfall is still there, and it is definitely impressive. And there is, in a shady and muddy corner, a dog cemetery – with heavily weathered stones recalling some of the dogs whom Christie must have known.
Wednesday, 27 August 2008
When visiting Kate Ellis at the Bank Holiday, she took us on a walk to Abney Hall. Now Abney Hall, as many of you will know, is a place that featured importantly in both the life and writing of Agatha Christie. It’s situated a short distance away from Kate’s home in Cheadle Hulme, in Abney Park, which is owned by Stockport Council.
Christie’s connection with Cheshire was strong. Her sister married into the wealthy family that owned Abney and Agatha spent time there both during her childhood and when she was recuperating after her ‘eleven missing days’ in 1926, and her marriage to Archie Christie had broken down. Not far from Abney is Marple, which sourced the name of her second great detective.
No family lives at Abney Hall now. It’s occupied by a company, and Abney Park is run by the local authority. The grounds are not exactly immaculate, but they are appealing nonetheless, with lakes and a dog cemetery.
Abney provided the model for Enderby Hall in After the Funeral; Christie describes it, with characteristic economy, as ‘a vast Victorian house built in the Gothic style.’ The old retainer Lanscombe frets, in conversation with Hercule Poirot, that the house will soon no longer be a family home – it’s too expensive to run in the post-war era: ‘these fine mansions have served their turn.’ The novel is dedicated to Christie’s brother-in-law James Watt ‘in memory of happy days at Abney.’
Tuesday, 26 August 2008
The weather has been so disappointing this summer that neither Kate Ellis and her husband Roger nor my family were confident that a long-awaited barbecue at Kate’s house would escape the ravages of the British climate – especially as we’d been invited over on the Bank Holiday weekend, which is almost traditionally damp and dismal. But as it happened, we were in luck, and the rain held off (more or less.)
Kate told the story of her weekend at the St Hilda’s Crime Fiction Conference, where she’d been among the speakers – the theme was crime past and present. I’ve been to St Hilda’s a few times in the past, and it’s a very enjoyable event. I’m really sorry I missed it, but as with reading books, there are only so many conventions that can be fitted into a year.
Kate has a new book out any time now, which is the first in a new series set in a fictionalised York. I’m looking forward to it. Certainly, if it’s anything like as good as her last Wesley Peterson, The Blood Pit, it will be terrific.
Kate’s a full-time writer these days and she works in what she describes as a garden shed, but is actually a delightful and well-equipped garden room. You can catch a glimpse of it in the photo. An excellent retreat.
Monday, 25 August 2008
After visiting Wembley Stadium last month, I returned again last week to watch a live international football match. It was the first time I’ve watched an international game live, though I’ve been watching them on television since I was very young.
In truth, the game between England and the Czech Republic was far from great (unless you were a Czech fan), but Wembley was. The Stadium is fantastic, and I was lucky enough to sample its first class hospitality in the FA Club. Six hours flew by.
I’ve now acquired a recording of that old mystery movie The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, and I’m looking forward to watching it. But it’s safe to say that the film-makers and football watchers of the 1930s could never have dreamed of the 21st century wonder that is Wembley.
Sunday, 24 August 2008
A couple of recent obituaries caught my eye. Both the deceased were people who, although not really famous, had done work that I much enjoyed.
Peter Coke was the smooth voice of the eponymous hero in the best of the Paul Temple radio shows. He was entirely believable as an essentially unbelievable character – no mean feat. In a nice piece in ‘The Independent’, that excellent writer Jack Adrian recalled a chance meeting with Coke and his surprise when Coke told him that Temple’s glamorous wife Steve was in reality a rather dumpy little lady (but played with an improbably appealing cut glass accent), Marjorie Westbury. It would probably have come as even more of a surprise to radio listeners in the 50s to discover that the uxorious Temple was played by a gay man.
Terence Rigby, who has died at the age of 71, was a tough guy in films such as Get Carter and Tomorrow Never Dies. But I remember him best as the gruff but likeable PC Snow in that long-running TV series ‘Softly, Softly’. This was essentially a spin-off from the classic ‘Z Cars’, but so well done that it took on a fresh momentum of its own and ran for around a decade. Very well cast, with the likes of Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor in the leading roles, it remains one of my all-time favourite cop shows. Rigby was a first-rate actor, never a household name but nonetheless a reliable presence in film and television for forty years.
Saturday, 23 August 2008
Well, I did promise to include a few more photos…
The Superlambanana has been a feature of the Liverpool scene for more than fifteen years now. It was the work of a Japanese sculptor and intended as some form of ironic comment on genetic engineering. But most Liverpool people have become very fond of the weird creature – and it was meant to feature in Waterloo Sunset. Unfortunately, that scene was cut out early on – but my enthusiasm for the Superlambanana is undiminished.
To celebrate Capital of Culture Year, over 120 smaller fibreglass versions of the original have been placed around the city They are colourful and varied and photogenic. I think they are a lot of fun. So I thought that a few days before official paperback publication of Waterloo Sunset was a good time to feature a handful of them. The church in the second photo from the top is the Parish Church, the gardens of which feature in a confrontation in chapter one, and Cotton House (the old Cotton Exchange) is the home of the Coroner's Court where Harry Devlin makes an inglorious appearance on behalf of his client Aled Borth.
Friday, 22 August 2008
I’ve talked before in this blog about Priscilla Masters, who is both a friend of mine and a reliable writer, whose books deserve to be better known. We are both published by Allison & Busby, and the arrival of Cilla’s latest novel, The Watchful Eye, is a reminder of how many of the writers whose work I enjoy happen to be published by the same company – it’s quite a list, including the likes of Harry Keating, Robert Barnard, Judith Cutler, June Thomson, Edward Marston, Jonathan Gash to name but a few.
This is Cilla Masters’ fifteenth crime novel – she has published approximately one a year since making her debut with Winding Up the Serpent (a book now much sought after by collectors, and commanding hefty prices on the second hand market.) She also wrote a single charming children’s book before turning to crime.
Cilla is one of very few British crime novelists who has had a long career in the medical profession and she makes consistently effective use of the knowledge gained from years of nursing when writing her books.
The Watchful Eye is a good example. The central character is a doctor called Daniel Gregson, whose frustrations with the work of a general practitioner are all too believable. He frets about poor communications with hospitals which look after his patients: ‘In his years of working for the National Health Service he had learnt that government intervention invariably made things worse.’
Daniel’s marriage has broken down and he doesn’t have much luck. A variety of elements, including the death of a small child, a complaint by a patient that he has been guilty of misconduct and ultimately a horrific threat to his life are juggled by Cilla Masters with her customary skill, but although the plot is sound, the stand-out features of the book is the sympathetic portrayal of a man under pressure – very well done.
(Incidentally, I'm conscious that I haven't included any photos to relieve the prose of my posts for a while. As usual, I blame pressure of work. But I shall share some pictures with you over the holiday weekend.)
Thursday, 21 August 2008
The paperback edition of Waterloo Sunset will soon have its official publication – I gather this is to be 28 August. I’m pleased with the reaction so far to the cover, even though the artwork is very different from that used for my recent books, including the hardback edition of this particular title.
I’m really delighted, too, with a generous review of the book that has just appeared in the Morning Star. It is so difficult these days for a mid-list author such as me to be noticed by a press reviewer, when review space is constantly reducing. This is one of the reasons why, it seems to me, the internet in general and blogging specifically are of such great importance to those of us who aren’t best-sellers.
Here is what the Morning Star has to say, after describing the story-line:
‘This is a very welcome return for Edwards’ original and best series character. As ever, the novel is carefully plotted and topical and Devlin is a charmingly human hero.’
Returning to Devlin after such a long break was in some ways a gamble. I’m very glad that the response from readers and reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic has been so positive. I do find writing about poor, long-suffering Harry to be a great deal of fun.
Wednesday, 20 August 2008
The Altrincham, Cheshire branch of Waterstone’s bookshops have invited me to become involved with an event which seems to me to be a good marketing initiative. It’s called Local Heroes, and involves authors who live locally to the Waterstone’s branch in question recommending some favourite titles, and also having the chance to promote their own books.
For a mid-list author like me, this is appealing. It’s very difficult to get one’s books into the shops in any quantities, and so it is correspondingly difficult to generate real sales. My books seem to sell quite well on Amazon, and a number of positive Amazon reviews that I’ve received recently have definitely helped (so a huge thank-you to any of those reviewers who happens to read this blog post!) It will be interesting to see, therefore, whether this initiative helps sales in my own back yard.
Choosing which books to recommend is inevitably difficult. I’ve gone for books, fact and fiction, by Kate Summerscale, Andrew Taylor, Ann Cleeves, Maxim Jakubowski and Laura Thompson.
Tuesday, 19 August 2008
Following on from discussion about the inter-relataionship between true crime and crime fiction, I’d like to recommend a little-known book by Steve Haste called Criminal Sentences. Its sub-title is ‘true crime in fiction and drama’ and it is a terrific piece of work.
Haste examines a large number of cases, some of them famous, some neglected, and provides information about the fictional works they have inspired. It’s a great book to dip into and, although I have not checked it systematically, it seems to be very well researched.
People who, like me, enjoyed Kate Summerscale’s book about the Constance Kent case may like to know that Haste lists several books inspired by the case in addition to The Moonstone.
Margarete Houstone – Such Things Are
Alan Brock – The Browns of the Yard
Elbut Ford – Such Bitter Business
Francis King – Act of Darkness.
I read the King book many years ago. Very well-written, though not quite gripping enough for my taste.
Monday, 18 August 2008
Rather belatedly, after writing a novel about Dr Crippen, I have bought an old green Penguin paperback about the life and cases of the man who sealed Crippen’s fate. I don’t mean Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard, but rather Bernard Spilsbury, the forensic pathologist who first made his name as a result of giving evidence for the prosecution. Evidence which helped to hang Crippen.
Bernard Spilsbury: his life and cases was written by Douglas G. Browne and E.V. Tullett. It’s a chunky volume, first published in 1951, four years after Spilsbury committed suicide. Over the years, for all his formidable reputation, Spilsbury has come to be regarded as someone whose approach to giving evidence may not have been as admirable as used to be supposed. Whilst this book may not still the doubts, I am sure I will find it fascinating to learn more about this legendary figure in 20th century British homicide investigation.
Douglas G. Browne, incidentally, was not only a criminologist but also himself a writer of crime novels. I’ve only read one of them - Too Many Cousins – and that perhaps twenty years ago. I remember it as an enjoyable Golden Age mystery featuring a rather quirky detective called Harvey Tuke.
Sunday, 17 August 2008
I’ve just received my copy of a book which rejoices in the title Zahada zamcheneho pokoje. This translates (pretty loosely, is my guess) as The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, edited by Mike Ashley, which first appeared in 2000 and which features my story ‘Waiting for Godstow’(or, as it has now become, ‘Cekani na Godstowa.’)
It turns out that this a Czech translation – the first time that any of my fiction has appeared in that particular language (as far as I know that is; I once discovered, years after its appearance, a Japanese translation of one of my stories that I’d neither agreed to or been paid for.)
It’s a curious experience to see one’s work translated into a language that one doesn’t understand. Curious, but somehow rather pleasing. Of course, it’s impossible to judge whether the translator has done a good job; there’s certainly a chance that he or she may actually have improved upon the original.
There’s a long-running debate about whether the Crime Writers’ Association is right to have separated its Gold Dagger for the best crime novel of the year in English from the International Dagger for the best novel of the year in translation. I must admit that the issue doesn’t provoke the strong feelings in me that it provokes in some people on each side of the debate. I’ve seen some powerfully reasoned arguments on each side, and in truth I can see merit in both lines of thinking. But either way, I do think it is a good thing that the role of the translator is recognised.
Saturday, 16 August 2008
One of the issues touched on in my current novel-in-progress, the fourth Lake District Mystery, concerns the way in which rural communities are being damaged and even destroyed by the lure of the city. I’ve often been told by people in Cumbria that they are concerned about the drift of young people to the south. There are sometimes economic reasons for this movement, although many people – and I am one of them – would argue that the quality of life in the rural north of England is often more attractive than that in some other parts of the country.
The subject of ‘economic geography’ has been front page news in Liverpool, Manchester and elsewhere this week, following the publication of a highly controversial report by a right-wing ‘think tank’ that recommends people from places like Liverpool and Bradford to move to London, Oxford or Cambridge. Predictably, the reaction to the report, especially in Liverpool, a city that’s always high on emotion, has been hostile and derisive.
But leaving emotion to one side, the ‘think tank’ seems brain-dead to me. If British society is indeed ‘broken’, as the leader of the Conservative party argues, how can it be healed by some sort of economic evacuation of the north of England? I’d like to think this is something on which most of us can agree, whatever our political views.We need more cohesion, not less, and stronger communities in all parts of Britain, not a crazy imbalance between one corner of the country and everywhere else.
Friday, 15 August 2008
I enjoyed David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac, a true crime story about the astonishing stranger-than-fiction serial killer case from California in the 60s and 70s. The Zodiac killings have intrigued me for a number of years, since I first did a bit of research on them in connection with a book about codes for which I was asked to write a synopsis (but the publishers decided not to go ahead with the project.)
The film includes a couple of stars, Robert J. Downey Jr. (who plays a journalist who investigates but succumbs to drink – this bit of the story isn’t really stranger than fiction at all) and Brian Cox, who takes a relatively small part, that of a celebrity lawyer who is apparently contacted by the killer. The key part, however, is played by a newspaper cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the case – Jake Gylenhaal, playing Robert Graysmith, whose book formed the basis of the screenplay.
Zodiac is a long film, even though the original version was apparently somewhat truncated for cinema release. Fincher’s aim is, clearly, to achieve a mundane veracity, and in this tricky objective he succeeds. For the most part, I found the film gripping, although I also felt that it might have benefited from further cutting. But the story is so remarkable as to make for compelling viewing, despite (compared to some fictional serial killer films) the relative lack of sensationalised incident.
Inevitably, the ending is rather anti-climactic. I didn’t, however, feel that spoiled the effect of the film as a whole. But it did make me want to look into the Zodiac case again, and try to examine some of the details hinted at by Fincher, but not explored in the depth possible in a book, as opposed to a film.
Thursday, 14 August 2008
One of the appealing features of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is the way that, as Kate Summerscale describes, the case of Constance Kent influenced Victorian detective fiction. Dickens and Collins were the most famous writers whose work would have been different without Whicher, but there were various others, including Mrs Braddon, whose celebrated Lady Audley’s Secret was published the year after the murder at Road Hill House.
Quite apart from novelists whose work were influenced by the Kent case, but it’s also interesting to see that several writers were fascinated by the crime for its own sake. Cecil Street, generally thought of as the prolific ‘humdrum’ creator of endless novels under the names of John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Waye, wrote a book about the mystery, called simply The Case of Constance Kent, which appeared under the Rhode by-line in 1928.
He developed the story in his contribution to The Anatomy of Murder, a collection put together under the auspices of the Detection Club. Of Street’s fellow Golden Age authors, Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L. Sayers in particular were keen students of true crime. So was Raymond Chandler, who was especially intrigued by the Crippen and Maybrick cases.
Many years after the Detection Club book appeared, Harry Keating edited a book of true crime stories for the Crime Writers’ Association. Some of the anthologies of regional crime that I edited in the 90s also contained snippets of true crime. And one day I’d like to compile an anthology solely devoted to factual, rather than fictional, stories of crime.
Tuesday, 12 August 2008
Reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher provoked a half-buried recollection that the Constance Kent case was once mentioned in an Agatha Christie. Kate Summerscale has a good deal to say about Victorian detective novelists who were influenced by the case, but she doesn’t mention Christie at all. Intrigued by my vague memory, I did a little research and found that the book I had in mind was The Clocks.
The Clocks was published in 1963, in the later stages of Christie’s career, and it’s not too highly regarded by most critics, but I have always had a soft spot for it. The initial premise is striking, and although the solution is a bit of a let-down, it’s an entertaining story, told for the most part by Colin Lamb, a likeable narrator who just might be the son of that one-time Christie hero Superintendent Battle.
In the latter stages of the story, Colin consults Hercule Poirot, who has been researching crime, both true and fictional. He has this to say: ‘Then there was that unfortunate adolescent, Constance Kent. The true motive that lay behind her strangling of the small brother whom she undoubtedly loved has always been a puzzle. But not to me.’ Typical egotism!
I suspect that Poirot’s (or Christie’s) interpretation of the Kent case was similar to Kate Summerscale’s. But it’s tempting to wonder if those famous little grey cells had some other, more intricate, motive in mind.
The death at the weekend of Isaac Hayes reminded me of the film with which he will be forever associated, Shaft. Shaft was a huge success in the early seventies and I remember watching it as a student, though I don’t recall much about the story, which concerned a black American private eye called John Shaft.
The character of John Shaft was originally created by a white writer, Ernest Tidyman, who also achieved fame through his screenplay for The French Connection. I haven’t read the novel on which Shaft was based, let alone its various sequels, and I suspect that, like the film, the book was very much of its time and wouldn’t stand up to too much scrutiny today. But what remains memorable about the film was Isaac Hayes’ music – above all the Oscar-winning theme song. A good example of how an average crime film, or any sort of film come to that, can be improved by great music.
I was, and have remained, quite a fan of Hayes. Years ago, I had several of his albums, including Hot, Buttered Soul, which featured an epic, seemingly endless, version of my faovurite song ‘Walk on By’. Even better was his version of ‘The Windows of the World.’ The whole soundtrack for Shaft was pretty good, if you like soundtracks (as I do.)
In recent years, Hayes was better known for voicing Chef in South Park, but he continued to write and record from time to time. In the obituaries so far, I have yet to see mention of a wonderful, hypnotic song of his which Dionne Warwick recorded, ‘Déjà Vu’, which to my mind is a minor classic.
Monday, 11 August 2008
Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher has been one of the most successful books to have appeared during the past twelve months and I have finally caught up with it. Amongst other successes, the novel was short-listed for the CWA Gold Dagger for non-fiction, and I can’t think of any other ‘true crime’ book of recent years that has earned comparable sales and critical acclaim.
The eponymous Jonathan Whicher was one of the first Scotland Yard detectives, much admired by Dickens and Collins; he (and his colleague Inspector Field) inspired the creation of Inspector Bucket and Sergeant Cuff, the memorable sleuths in Bleak House and The Moonstone respectively. Whicher’s most celebrated and controversial case is the subject of Summerscale’s book – ‘the murder at Road Hill House’ of 1860, aka the case of Constance Kent.
Various writers have tackled the Constance Kent case, and the merit of Summerscale’s book is not so much original research and theorising (though her researches have been wide-ranging) as the quality of the writing and her account of Whicher’s role in forming our view of the nature of the detective.
A knowledgeable friend and true crime enthusiast had told me that there was nothing much that was new about the book, but I was very far from sharing his disappointment – and not merely because I wasn’t familiar with the details of the case. For me, Summerscale’s accessible style and her ability to tell a true story with a novelistic flair deserve high praise. They make this book one of the most compelling reads around.
Sunday, 10 August 2008
I was heartened by a very positive review of Waterloo Sunset, which has just appeared in ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’, for a number of reasons. EQMM published my very first short story in the States, at an exciting early point in my writing career, just before my first novel appeared. It’s a great magazine, a must-read for lovers of the crime short story. And Jon L. Breen is not only a highly regarded reviewer but also a crime writer, and commentator on the genre, of renown.
I’ve never met Mr Breen, but I first came across his name when he contributed to EQMM a number of incisive and witty parodies of famous crime writers. These were eventually collected in Hair of the Sleuthhound, a book that isn’t easy to find but worth searching high and low for. I wish he’d write a few more parodies of some of the celebrated detectives of the present day. He also wrote an excellent book called What about Murder? This provided a very reliable guide to books about the genre. I often consult it, and can recommend it for those wanting to expand their personal crime reference libraries. And he is, as well, the author of Novel Verdicts, a book about crime fiction with a courtroom element.
Mr Breen compared Harry Devlin’s Liverpool to Bill Pronzini’s San Francisco, by the way. It’s a coupling that I appreciate, because although Pronzini is not especially well-known in the UK, he is one of the genre’s real craftsmen, creator of the Nameless Detective and prolific author of high calibre short stories. And his evocation of San Francisco is marvellous.
Saturday, 9 August 2008
The second Henry Wade novel I read on holiday was The High Sheriff, first published in 1937. It’s very different from New Graves at Great Norne. This time Wade’s focus is on the study of character and the ‘whodunit’ element is relatively straightforward. But it’s an equally successful story.
A lengthy prologue set in the trenches in March 1918 explains why Robert D’Arcy, the High Sheriff of Brackenshire (not Buckinghamshire, as the jacket of my 1970 reprint says), is a man with something to fear. A proud man, he succumbed to a (to my mind, entirely understandable, indeed almost inevitable) cowardly impulse when facing almost certain death and the dread of exposure has haunted him ever since. When someone who knows what happened back in 1918 invades D’Arcy’s privileged world, a tragic sequence of events is set in motion.
A great deal of this book is devoted to horses and hunting – this might normally be enough to cool my enthusiasm for a story, but Wade handles the material with such assurance that he manages to invest a perhaps unattractive group of people with a great deal of interest. Unlike many other Golden Age novelists who attempted to depict upper class society, Wade had an intimate understanding of what he was writing about. He served in the Grenadier Guards for twelve years, and was later High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire (this must be why the reprint publishers made their mistake.) Several of his books describe the long shadows cast by the Great War; this one is a very soundly conceived and written example.
Friday, 8 August 2008
Sarah Hilary was good enough to send me a copy of the Fish Anthology 2008, Harlem River Blues and other stories, in which a couple of her own short pieces appear; they have the very different, yet equally fascinating, settings of Lizzie Borden’s home town, and Eyam, the Derbyshire plague village. I’ve never been to Fall River, but I do know Eyam, and it’s a fascinating spot in one of England’s most under-rated counties.
As well as Sarah’s entries, there are plenty of other enjoyable things in this book, which brings together a wide range of talented writers; the choices were made by a panel of judges, including Philip Gooden, a recent former Chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association.
This week I’ve been asked to do a couple of radio interviews this week on the subject of short stories – Radio Merseyside on Wednesday, GMR (Manchester) today. On Wednesday I talked in particular about the short story competition which my firm is sponsoring – the theme of the stories is ‘justice’ – to celebrate Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture Year. For anyone interested in submitting, the final date for entries is 31 August.
Chris High has kindly provided this link to the interview:
Finally, this is (can’t quite believe it but Blogger stats never lie – or do they?) my 300th blog post. Thanks to everyone who has commented or encouraged me to keep going. Much appreciated.
Thursday, 7 August 2008
Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wrote in such a vivid way that it is hardly surprising that so many of their books have been turned into films. I haven’t seen the movie based on Faces in the Dark, but the film tie-in paperback that I read on holiday tells me that the stars included John Gregson, Michael Denison and Mai Zetterling.
It may be a film worth seeking out. Certainly, the book is a good read, and it has a particularly chilling premise. Richard Hermantier is a wealthy businessman who has been blinded in an accident. After a period of convalescence, his wife takes him to their holiday home to prepare for the day when he may be ready to take charge again of his company. But he struggles to come to terms with his disability, and soon becomes convinced that something dreadful is happening to his life.
Boileau and Narcejac are at their best when conjuring the fears experienced by those who find themselves at the mercy of a malign Fate. In this book, the idea of the vulnerability of the blind man, betrayed by those upon whom he must depend, is handled with terrifying brilliance.
My only reservation was about the rather abrupt and simplistic ending, which seemed out of keeping with the exceptionally dark tone of the slow, agonising, build-up. Nevertheless, this is another notable book by my favourite French authors .
Wednesday, 6 August 2008
I’ve mentioned before my admiration for that under-estimated crime writer Henry Wade, and during my recent holiday I read a couple more of his novels. New Graves at Great Norne was published just after the end of the Second World War, but is set just before the war began. Wade’s previous book, Lonely Magdalen, was quite superb; set in London, it charts a police investigation into the murder of a prostitute. This novel is very different – a tale of a sequence of murders in East Anglia, the backdrop for that excellent 1930s serial killer novel by Francis Beeding, Death Walks in Eastrepps.
The first person to die in the story is the vicar of Great Norne. His apparently accidental death is followed by a possible suicide, and there is more work for the undertaker when a third member of the community is killed in a fire. Before the puzzle is solved, two more people fall victim to a ruthless murderer.
New Graves makes effective use of an East Anglian setting similar to that employed in an earlier, equally impressive, Wade novel, Mist on the Saltings. As usual, Wade handles the description of police work with quiet authority; the relationship between the local cops and the Scotland Yard men is portrayed subtly, and in an entirely credible way.
I enjoyed this book. It has long been out of print in the UK, but it stands up well to scrutiny, more than sixty years after first publication. There are suspects and red herrings aplenty, and the detective work is sound. But the greatest strength of this highly readable story lies in its depiction of a small community ripped apart by murder.
Tuesday, 5 August 2008
I’m back after a few days’ break in Wales, where the weather was better than the forecasters prophesied, and I had another chance to marvel at the gorgeous landscape of one of my favourite countries.
Wales hasn’t featured in a great many crime novels - certainly very few in comparison to Scotland - though Lindsay Ashford writes an enjoyable series set in the mid-Wales resort of Borth, not far from Aberystwyth, where she and her amateur sleuth both live. The late David Williams and the under-rated Bill James are among those who have also created successful Welsh crime series.
One of the fascinations of Wales is its very rich heritage, as well as its apparently difficult yet intriguing language, to the preservation of which so much effort and money has been devoted over the past twenty or thirty years. For all the qualities of Ashford, James and Williams, I can’t think of a Welsh crime series that has yet exploited their distinctive potential to the full. A gap in the market, perhaps?
Monday, 4 August 2008
I have vague childhood memories of Lucille Ball as a rather ditzy character in a very successful long-running comedy series, but before she achieved real fame she starred in a rather competent film noir called The Dark Corner (1946) which I’ve just enjoyed.
Ball plays the part of a secretary to Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), a private eye with a questionable past who becomes trapped in a murder plot contrived by Cathcart, an art gallery owner who has discovered that the glamorous wife with whom he is besotted is planning to run away with a dodgy lawyer who has a past connection with Galt. Clifton Webb is Cathcart, and he endows the character with the same aesthetic obsessiveness with which he invested Waldo Lydecker in Laura. Cathcart hires a thug in a white suit (William Bendix, familiar from Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and other classic movies) to murder his wife’s lover and frame Galt.
It’s a fast-moving, well-written movie, not in the same league as Laura, but entertaining nevertheless. The nightmarish experience of an ordinary man victimised by malign forces is a recurrent theme of film noir, although in the best examples of the genre, the protagonist seems more affected by his fate than Galt; Stevens is not sufficiently intense to be ideal for the role. Ball, though, is very impressive, making the most of her part, as she helps the man she loves to clear his name, and it’s unsurprising that before long she made it big. As for The Dark Corner, it has stood the test of time pretty well
Sunday, 3 August 2008
One of the complications of reading new(ish) crime series in translation is that the books are often not published in the UK in the order in which they originally appeared. With some series, this makes little difference. With others, it does matter.
A case in point is the work of Sweden’s Hakan Nesser. I read Borkmann’s Point, featuring Inspector Van Veeteren, a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it. I missed out on The Return, but now The Mind’s Eye has appeared – and it seems that this book was actually the first to appear. Originally called The Wide-Meshed Net, it was awarded the 1993 Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for new authors. On balance, this latest book would be, I think, the best place for readers new to Nesser to start.
The translation by Laurie Thompson makes for a lively read, even though VV himself is, in the best Scandinavian cop tradition, prey to depression. The story opens when Janek Mitter wakes up, feeling unwell, and discovers that his gorgeous new wife Eva has been murdered. Mitter can’t remember what happened to her, and is duly tried and convicted of the killing. But VV cannot still his doubts and a further brutal killing makes it clear that dark forces are at work.
I liked the central plot idea very much. The only snag is that I cannot believe that the killer would have acted in the way he did – notably, leaving Mitter alive. It doesn’t seem to fit his psychological profile. But others may disagree. In any event, this issue did not spoil the story for me and I shall definitely look out for more books about Van Veeteren.
Saturday, 2 August 2008
Steven Spielberg’s 2005 movie Munich is a thriller, but much more than that, a film of genuine complexity. Its starting point is the assassination of Israelis at the 1972 Olympics in Munich – a shocking act of terrorism that I still remember vividly. The bulk of the movie follows the work of a team of Mossad agents, led by Eric Bana and including Daniel Craig (the future James Bond unexpectedly playing a South African hard man) and Ciaran Hinds, who performs brilliantly in an apparently subordinate role.
I don’t normally care for very length films or tv programmes (I even tend to be wary of very lengthy books), but two hours forty minutes or so flew by, so absorbing did I find the story. It’s based on a book called Vengeance, which I must admit I’ve never heard of, and that title gives a clue as to Spielberg’s theme – he’s concerned with the consequences of violence. It is possible to understand why Golda Meir might have instructed her secret service to kill off those responsible for the horrific massacre – pour encourager les autres, is the idea – but Spielberg shows that it’s all too easy for the violence to spiral completely out of control. In the end, it isn’t altogether easy to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys – or to believe that people truly divide up into neat categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
As one might expect, the film has caused some political controversy. It’s fair to assume that hard-liners on both sides of the argument will find plenty in it to complain about. Overall, I thought it sympathetic to the Israeli cause, but sceptical as to whether ‘an eye for an eye’ was the best way of promoting that casue.
An excellent, thought-provoking film. Strongly recommended.
Friday, 1 August 2008
I mentioned recently the radio work of Alison Joseph. I’m currently wondering about the possibilities of radio for my Harry Devlin stories. More than a decade ago, someone wrote a radio script based on All the Lonely People, but discussions with the BBC did not get very far and I felt that the script wasn’t – if I’m brutally honest – quite what I’d hoped for, even though the scriptwriter was very experienced.
So I was interested to learn some of Alison’s thoughts about her own experiences with radio:
‘Peculiar business, this crime writing lark. You bring into being a detective, in my case, a nun, Sister Agnes. After several books (the eighth has just come out in paperback), she’s more real than some human beings I could mention. I can tell you everything about her; I can corner you at parties and bore you, about her conflict with her vocation; how she’d rather spend time with the low-lifes of Bermondsey than at prayer in her Hackney convent. I can tell you about her parents, her distant English father, her snobbish and negligent French mother, her boarding school education, her violent ex-husband, her liking for crab pate and Sauvignon blanc, her taste in clothes – well-cut and expensive, but of course vicarious, what with her vow of poverty….
For some weeks the radio director, Jessica Dromgoole, has been kindly indulging me, allowing me to go on and on, as above. She nods and smiles and listens while we work through my script and I say, ‘But what you need to know, is that years ago Julius rescued Agnes,’ or ‘The thing is, Agnes met Athena when she was involved with Agnes’s violent ex-husband,’ or ‘Agnes’s involvement in the crime investigation is really about her own doubt…’
Gradually the story becomes a script. The radio Agnes becomes more active, less reflective, as the inner thought processes of the novels would translate in radio terms into several long minutes of total silence, with the risk, apparently, of the transmitters shutting down.
And then one day, I find myself sitting in a BBC rehearsal room with Sister Agnes, or in this case, the wonderful Anne-Marie Duff, discussing, indeed, her violent marriage, her liking for seafood. And we go into the studio, and something happens. There they all are, Sister Agnes, and her confidant Father Julius, and her best friend Athena, all talking amongst themselves, as if they had absolutely nothing to do with me. And I look at them all, all my characters, being themselves, and I think, what a peculiar way to make a living.’
Peculiar, maybe, but satisfying too.