Monday, 11 December 2017

Reading Reviews


Image result for the story of classic crime in 100 books


Image result for golden age of murder

Is it wise for writers to read reviews of their own books? Or is it simply a recipe for frustration and occasional rage, when the brilliance of one's efforts is ignored, and the reviewer displays a lamentable lack of enthusiasm, or even scorn? Writers invest a lot of time and effort in their work, and often a great deal of heartfelt emotion. So it's easy to become upset. And human nature means that bad reviews often make more of an impact than good reviews.

It's bound to be a purely personal matter for each writer as to the stance they take on reviews. My own attitude is influenced by the fact that I've been reviewing books for over 30 years, so I can see things from the reviewer's perspective as well as from the author's. As a writer, I'm interested in constructive reviews of my books, even if I don't agree with everything the reviewer says. We all make mistakes - critics as well as authors.

Of course, like everyone, I am very pleased when people say nice things about my books. And last week I was lucky enough to get two wonderful and very extensive reviews of two of my non-fiction works. The Invisible Event blog gave fantastic coverage to The Golden Age of Murder. I am still pinching myself about the fact that this book continues to sell well, even the hardback edition, which was published two and a half years ago.

And then the online library Interesting Literature discussed The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books in depth, and in a way that again I found truly gratifying. And to see the book appear in Crimesquad's Christmas Top Ten (along with the Folio Society set for which I wrote an intro) was also delightful. 

What is especially satisfying is that both reviewers "got" what I was trying to do. And this is, to my mind, the key to reviewing. When one judges a book, it is best to judge it in the light of what the author's objectives were - not, or not mainly, by what the reviewer thinks the author's objectives should have been. Criticism that is sympathetic and constructive, and which strives not to be hurtful, is to my mind not just entirely proper, but well worth studying. One can learn from such criticism, in exactly the same way as one can learn from criticism of a first draft from a good editor. And anyway, you can't please all the people all of the time. If one sends a book out into the world, one has to be somewhat philosophical about the reaction, hard though that can be. Probably the worst scenario is for there to be no reaction at all!

Criticism that is unpleasantly expressed or reflects the reviewer's personal hang-ups (or vanity, or ignorance) is a waste of time, and not worth bothering with. And even the finest critics can sometimes err on the side of acerbity. I have huge admiration for both Dorothy L. Sayers and Julian Symons as critics, but occasionally I feel they overdid the brutality. Because they were people of great distinction, this must have caused quite a bit of hurt. I think that in later life Symons recognised this, and some (but not all) of his judgements mellowed. It was, in my opinion, a change for the better. In reviewing, as in life, a reasonable amount of tolerance is a very good thing.

     

Friday, 8 December 2017

Forgotten Book - The File on Lester

The name of Andrew Garve isn't as well-known today as it might be, despite the fact that Bello have made much of his work available again. I think that he, like his contemporary (and CWA and Detection Club colleague) Michael Gilbert suffered because of his refusal to be typecast, and his reluctance to write about series characters. He was a prolific and capable writer, who at his best was very, very good.

I've read a number of Garve's books, and I was tempted to try The File on Lester by an article that John Cooper contributed to the latest issue of CADS. John is an excellent judge, and he expressed great admiration for this book. Having read it, I can see why. It's extremely readable (smoothness of writing was something else Garve had in common with Gilbert) and the storyline is highly intriguing.

The eponymous Lester is a fast-rising star in the political firmament. He's just become leader of the Opposition, at a time when the government is unpopular, and facing a general election. Within a short time, Lester could be walking into 10 Downing Street. Then disaster strikes. An attractive young woman lets slip the information that, more than six months earlier, she and Lester had a brief affair. Lester is a widower, and there's nothing terribly scandalous about what happened. But Lester denies that he ever met the young woman, and his apparent deceit creates a furore.

The story is told in a series of documents, including reports from people working on a newspaper sympathetic to Lester. This method of story-telling can work very well, and Garve does a really good job of building the tension. There's an obvious explanation for what has happened to Lester, but it's not the right explanation. I enjoyed finding out the truth, and I now share John Cooper's enthusiasm for this highly entertaining novel.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Night Has Eyes - 1942 film review

The Night Has Eyes is a British film, released in 1942, and not to be confused with Cornell Woolrich's Night Has a Thousand Eyes, which was published three years later and subsequently turned into a good film starring Edward G. Robinson. The British film also had two alternative titles in the US - Terror House and Moonlight Madness. No prizes for guessing which title I prefer.

The Night Has Eyes is based on a thriller by Alan Kennington which was published in 1939. I know very little about Kennington, though apparently in later life he was friendly with the better-known (yet still under-estimated) P. M. Hubbard. The film version of his book is in some respects creaky and melodramatic, as well as fog-shrouded, but it has a number of redeeming features.

One of these is the performance of James Mason as Stephen Dermid, a composer who has suffered severe shell-shock after being wounded while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Mason manages, not for the only time in his career, to combine the charming with the sinister. A young teacher called Marian (Joyce Howard) falls for him after travelling to the Yorkshire moors with her American chum (Tucker McGuire) to try to discover the fate of her friend Evelyn, who disappeared a year ago.

Stephen is cared for by a housekeeper, Mrs Ranger (Mary Clare, an actress of real ability who played the very different part of Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard) and an odd-job man, Jim. Unfortunately for Marian, it becomes increasingly clear that something terrible happened to Evelyn, and before long she is at risk of suffering a similar fate. Despite the presentation of Yorkshire, a county I love, as a wild blend of fog and bog, and not much else, I found the film rather entertaining.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Books for Christmas


Tomorrow evening I'll be at the British Library, where there will be a Christmas shopping evening, and this has prompted me to give a plug to some of the books I've been involved with recently in the hope that if you're casting around for present ideas, you may be tempted. At least there are plenty of options to choose from this year!


For me,the publishing highlight of the year has been the appearance of The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. The reviews, here and in the US, have been fantastic, and the sales have been equally gratifying. At times in the past, I've found that great reviews don't always lead to great sales, but this year has been a happy exception.


And then there are the British Library anthologies that I've put together this year. Miraculous Mysteries, Continental Crimes, The Long Arm of the Law, and Foreign Bodies. Each very distinctive, but each an attempt to combine rarities from obscure authors with stories by more familiar name, always with an emphasis on variety around a common theme.


The British Library has brought out a new Crime Classic each month, and the series now numbers 50 books, which I find rather wonderful. The hardback edition of Anne Meredith's Portrait of a Murderer contains an extended essay of mine about Christmas crime. And of course my earlier seasonal anthologies, Silent Nights and Crimson Snow, are still very much available.


With other publishers, I've undertaken a variety of projects. I'm thrilled that the Dorothy L. Sayers Society brought out Taking Detective Stories Seriously, the Sayers reviews that I edited and wrote a commentary for. And a  project I haven't mentioned previously on this blog is the Folio Society's lovely collection of three classic locked room mysteries (by Gaston Leroux, Edgar Wallace, and John Dickson Carr), for which I wrote an extended introductory essay. A beautifully produced set of books.

Also rather lovely to look at is Flame Tree's Agents and Spies, for which I wrote a short intro. I'm a fan of the Detective Story Club, and I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with E.C. Bentley when writing an intro for Trent's Own Case. There are two more books in this series for which I've written intros - more details next year.


And last but not least, there is the CWA anthology, Mystery Tour. 28 contemporary authors and 28 new stories. We're launching the book at Daunt's Bookshop on Wednesday, and I hope to see some of you there.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Forgotten Book - The House of Dr Edwardes

The writing partnership of John Palmer and Hilary Saunders, who collaborated as Francis Beeding (and other pen-names as well) was arguably the finest British crime-writing combination of the Golden Age. They were best known for their thrillers, but their occasional detective stories were of high calibre, and I'd put books like Death Walks in Eastrepps and The Norwich Victims far ahead of anything written by once-renowned detective writers such as, say, G.D.H. and Margaret Cole.

Their fourth book, published in 1927, was The House of Dr Edwardes. It was turned into a film by Alfred Hitchcock - Spellbound, a much better title, it has to be said. I'll talk about the film another day, but overall I think it's more impressive than the novel. The novel isn't my favourite Beeding by a long chalk. But the storyline has some memorable features, characteristic of their work, which explain why it caught Hitchcock's attention.

Dr Edwardes is a famous psychiatrist, but he's been suffering from overwork, and he leaves the asylum that he manages in the Alps in the care of a Dr Murchison and a newly recruited young female doctor. A violent incident results in the incarceration of a patient, but the new woman starts to wonder if it's possible that, to coin a phrase, the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.

One thing that's very evident from this book is that people with mental health problems were regarded very differently in the Twenties than they are today. Quite a bit of fun is poked at their strange ways, and some of this makes the modern reader feel uncomfortable. By and large, however, Beeding treats the insane characters a little more generously than did some Golden Age writers. At the time it was written, this was an original and entertaining book, though in my opinion it has worn much less well than some of Beeding's other work. Even so, if you've ever watched Spellbound, you might like to sample the book which inspired the film.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Inside the Room - 1935 film review

Inside the Room is a short black and white movie released in 1935 which features both an "impossible crime" puzzle and a very, very early example of the serial killer story in which the culprit sends enigmatic, menacing messages to his intended victims . One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how it originated. The story began life as a short story written by Marten Cumberland towards the start of his career. "The Diary of Death" was an entertaining tale which merited inclusion in Ronald Knox's famous anthology of 1928, Best Detective Stories. Much more recently, I included it in Miraculous Mysteries.

Cumberland turned his plot into a play, which he called Inside the Room, which was produced in 1934. This was in its turn adapted for film, but by the prolific screenwriter Harry Fowler Mear, rather than by Cumberland. In the short story, the detective, Loreto Santos, is a cosmopolitan character, born in Argentina of Spanish parents, and raised in England. In the film, he becomes Pierre Santos, and is played by Austin Trevor, who had already made a name for himself by portraying Hercule Poirot on the screen.

The story begins with the death in poverty of Lilian Hope, once a celebrity stage performer. She'd fallen on hard times, and been deserted by her friends. Embittered, she'd written a vitriolic diary condemning those she blamed for not rescuing her from tragedy. After her death, fragments of the diary are found with the bodies of two murder victims. Who is killing the people that Lilian scapegoated?

Most of the film takes place in a classic country house setting. A former admirer of Lilian's is among the house guests, and after receiving a warning that he is next on the killer' list, his body is duly found in his room, along with an extract from the diary. Santos, needless to say, applies his brilliant mind to the problem and comes up with the solution. It's not a great film, but quite watchable. Overall, though, I prefer Cumberland's original short story.




Monday, 27 November 2017

The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler, a worthy winner of the CWA Dagger in the Library a couple of years back, is one of the most interesting writers around. I first encountered his work through a book of short stories Demonized. It's a collection of dark tales that appealed to me a lot. I started to read and enjoy his flavoursome Bryant and May novels, and I've also appreciated his non-fiction. He and I have met several times, though we've never found the time for a long conversation, and one of these days, I hope to repair that omission..

His latest book is another non-fiction work, The Book of Forgotten Authors, and it displays the qualities that appeal to me in all his work. It's quirky, witty, and thoroughly entertaining. Like all the best books, from time to time this one confounds expectations. The opinions he expresses, the judgments he makes, are often provocative - in a good way. Like another (albeit very different) writer whom I admire, Julian Symons, Chris Fowler has the confidence to recognise that others may disagree, and the good sense to realise that this doesn't matter a jot.

This is not a book that focuses exclusively on crime writers - in fact, it ranges widely (and I was very pleased to find that he covers various authors I've never even heard of, alongside one or two who may be turning in their graves now they've been labelled "forgotten"). But there's a good deal about crime fiction, and the writers he features range from Edgar Wallace and Georgette Heyer to Kyril Bonfiglioli, John Creasey, and Boileau and Narcejac. Overall, the book's a treasure trove of intriguing trivia. It's also packed with crisp, off-beat comment..

Discussions of 99 individual authors are interspersed with longer sections covering a miscellany of topics. Some of these, like the choices of the featured authors, have a rather random feel to them, but that's part of the appeal of this book. All of the entries contain something to interest and amuse readers who love popular literature. And the underlying message that I take from Chris Fowler's book  is that, even for those writers who achieve huge success, fame is often fleeting, and perhaps matters much less in the long run than we might believe. .

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Natural Causes - play review

Back in May, I reviewed Thriller of the Year, a play by Glyn Jones which was performed by my local amateur theatre group, the Bridgewater Players. I enjoyed the evening so much that I was keen to see their next production, and last night I again had a good time, watching Natural Causes by Eric Chappell. Oddly enough, the theatre, at Thelwall Parish Hall, an excellent community resource which was the setting for a talk I gave, just over a week ago, to Lymm and Thelwall U3A, which to my amazement attracted about 70 people on a wet Thursday morning.

Eric Chappell's name will forever be associated with Rising Damp, a highly successful sitcom with an excellent cast led by the brilliant Leonard Rossiter as Rigsby, the odious landlord. But Rising Damp began life as a play called The Banana Box, first performed in 1971, and Chappell was certainly a very capable playwright. Natural Causes dates from 1984, during the period (lasting roughly a quarter of a century) when Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth exerted a powerful influence on blackly humorous thriller writing.

Natural Causes is described as a black comedy, and it has elements of farce. It's not, first and foremost, a thriller, even though poisoning and attempted poisoning is central to the storyline. As in Sleuth, and many of the plays that followed in its wake (including Thriller of the Year), the lead character is a writer, in this case Walter Bryce, an author of historical biographies who is a former teacher, kept in the style to which he'd like to become accustomed by a depressive wife who keeps threatening to commit suicide.

Unknown to his wife, Bryce is having an affair with his secretary Angie, who is keen for Mrs Bryce's threatened demise to become a reality. The couple enlist the aid of "Vincent", from Exodus, a business which offers assistance to suicides in return for cash, and the complications start from there.  Paul Bidston and Howard Brooks led the way as Bryce and Vincent respectively, and were ably supported by Kelly Jane Sergeant, Ann Marie Saunders, and Andy Rushman. The result was an evening of good entertainment at remarkably modest cost. 

Friday, 24 November 2017

Forgotten Book - The Third Eye

One of the many pleasures of editing anthologies for the British Library has been the chance to resurrect some splendid but long-neglected short stories, and thereby introduce present day readers to some writers who really deserve to be remembered. Among them is Ethel Lina White, whose "women in jeopardy"  novels were very successful in the Thirties. She was also a fine short story writer and a number of Crime Classic readers have told me how pleased they have been to discover her work.

I've just read the novel she published after The Wheel Spins, which Hitchcock turned into The Lady Vanishes. The Third Eye came out in 1937, and my copy is a cheap American paperback with a back cover blurb that not only tells the whole story but gets much of it wrong. Very odd. But the story is, if you like this type of writing, a strong one.

She was good at ringing changes on a basic formula. So here we have, as usual, a likeable and resourceful young woman who doesn't have much money, who - through no fault of her own - becomes a potential murder victim. Caroline takes a job at a public school, whose owner is mysteriously dominated by the very unpleasant matron. When Caroline discovers that the matron is a homicidal maniac, her own life is put at risk.

But the real danger comes from the matron's half-sister, who is equally crazy. She is called Miss Bat, and she lives in - where else? - Bat House. Why on earth any young woman who knows her life is in danger would, on  a foggy night, accept hospitality from a Miss Bat of Bat House is beyond me, but there you go. This type of story requires suspension of disbelief aplenty, but the Gothic atmosphere is nicely done, and White shows her customary expertise in the art of building tension.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

A Perfect Getaway - 2009 film review

I've been working lately on a short story set on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, one of the loveliest places imaginable. So I was delighted to come across A Perfect Getaway, a film released eight years ago, which is also set on the island. In fact, some of the filming was evidently undertaken in Puerto Rico, another nice part of the world, and I could have done with a bit more Kauai-specific atmosphere. Still, the locations are gorgeous.

We start off with film of a recent wedding, and join honeymooning couple Cliff and Cydney, played by Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich. They are in Kauai, determined to get off the beaten track. But there's a killer on the loose in Hawaii. A young couple, we learn, have recently been butchered on the island of Oahu.

Cliff and Cydney encounter another couple, and are about to give them a lift in their car when suspicion about the other pair makes them change their mind. They set off on a scenic trail, and soon encounter Nick (Timothy Olyphant), a charming young man who might just be something of a fantasist. When Cliff tells him that he's a screenwriter, Nick is fascinated, and introduces them to his girlfriend Gina (Kiele Sanchez).

The two couples explore the remote parts of the island together, but become increasingly suspicious of each other. Soon the plot thickens, and there are some exciting incidents as the truth about who exactly committed the murders in Oahu emerges. The plot isn't to be taken too seriously, but the action and the scenery are pleasing enough. An entertaining thriller with a few grisly moments. And I enjoyed being reminded of Kauai.

Notable British Trials is Back!

More than sixty years have passed since the last entry appeared in the renowned series of Notable British Trials, published by William Hodge and Co. Now, I'm pleased to have had the chance to read a brand new entry in the series - number 84, no less. It's the Trial of Israel Lipski, edited by true crime writer M.W. Oldridge, and published by Mango Books under licence from William Hodge.

Pleasingly, this volume includes a lengthy foreword which provides a history of how Notable British Trials came into being. It's a fascinating story, and some of Oldridge's predecessors were legends of true crime writing - the likes of William Roughead and Frin Tennyson Jesse. Classic cases covered include those of Adelaide Bartlett, Florence Maybrick, Alfred Monson, and Buck Ruxton,

The famous trials are interesting in themselves. They also provide a vast amount of information for writers, not just true crime writers, but also novelists. When I was working on Dancing for the Hangman, I studied Filson Young's book about the trial of Dr Crippen very carefully. I was trying to write a novel which respected the facts that were known (while using fictional skills to explain the apparently inexplicable parts of the story), and the trial transcript gave me a great deal of help.

In line with the tradition of these books, Oldridge contributes a detailed introduction which sets the case in context. Lipski's murder of Miram Angel in 1887 attracted a good deal of attention at at the time, and the case does have intriguing features, although I find it less mysterious than, say the Bartlett or Maybrick cases. There are illustrations, and all in all I think Mango have done true crime fans a real service in bringing this famous publishing brand back to life.


Monday, 20 November 2017

Agatha Christie's Very Secret Notebook


Agatha Christie's secret notebooks - the private journals in which she jotted down her ideas for stories, shot to fame some years ago, when Harper Collins published John Curran's fascinating book about them. What nobody seems to have realised at the time was that there was another notebook out there which was in private hands. It was sold at auction many years ago to an American collector for the princely sum of £240 plus commission. It's now come to light again, having been acquired by James Hallgate of Lucius Books in York,

There are some very delightful book dealers around, both here and in the US, and in recent years I've had the pleasure of getting to know quite a few of them. I have to be careful, because naturally they are inclined to lure me into making fresh purchases for my collection! But I find their company very enjoyable, and not only because they supply me with books, information, and background material for my portrayal of Marc Amos and his second hand bookshop in the Lake District Mysteries (though Marc definitely isn't based on anyone in real life!)


James Hallgate very kindly gave me the opportunity, some time ago, to look at the Christie journal shortly after he'd acquired it, and before he put it on the market. I must say it was a great thrill as well as a great privilege to pore over this fascinating item. Christie jotted her thoughts down casually and, seemingly, carelessly, but if one reads her (not very easy to decipher) handwriting, it's possible to discern her thought processes as she develops her storylines. This journal focuses on one of her finest post-war novels, A Murder is Announced, and it features one of her most cunning clues. There are also extensive notes about the play Spider's Web and other Christie works of the period.


I'm really grateful to James for giving me this memorable experience, and I readily agreed not to write about it until he was ready to market the journal. That time has now come, and I'm also appreciative of the photos that he's supplied to adorn this post. If you want to start saving up for a very special present for that Christie fan in your life, I'm afraid you will have to dig very deep indeed. The price of the journal, housed in a bespoke case, is a mere £45,000. Bargain! Alas, I won't be in the market on this occasion, but others definitely will be,and let's face it, it's a snip compared to a Leonardo. I hope very much the notebook finds a suitable home and that it doesn't altogether disappear from public view for years to come. Like the other Christie journals,it provides a wonderful insight into the workings of the mind of one of the genre's most innovative superstars.


Sunday, 19 November 2017

Undercover Agent aka Counterspy - 1953 film review

As I settled down to watch another of the long-forgotten films that have been resurrected on the excellent Talking Pictures TV channel, I was startled to see on the titles that the screenplay was based on a short story by Julian Symons. The film, Undercover Agent, is also known as Counterspy, and was released in 1953. The story it was based on is called "Criss Cross Code", but I'm unfamiliar with it, and I now plan to set about tracking it down.

Nobody ever thinks of Symons as writing espionage fiction, as the film's titles would suggest, although a few of his early short stories (and this one must have been among his very earliest) touch on international intrigue. The film is a thriller, and although it's creaky in parts, the screenplay is a lively one, co-written by Guy Elmes and Gaston Lazare (the latter name sounds as though it may possibly have been a pseudonym - I can't trace any of Lazare's other work).

The cast is a cut above the average for a British B-movie. Dermot Walsh, later to play Richard the Lionheart in a popular TV series of that name, improbably plays a meek but persistent auditor, who is called in to look over the books of a company where some mischief is afoot. His wife is played by Hazel Court, who was at the time married to Walsh in real life. The principal villain is played by Alexander Gauge, memorable in the role of Friar Tuck in the TV series Robin Hood. Here, Gauge acts rather like a poor man's Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. Hermione Baddeley plays a fortune teller, and even less likely is the casting of Bill Travers - yes, the chap from Born Free - as a brutal thug.

Yet somehow it all makes for agreeable light entertainment, mainly because the pace of the script doesn't allow one time to reflect on the daftness of it all. I'm not sure what Symons would have made of it, and I strongly suspect it bears only a limited resemblance to his story. He probably cringed, but it's no mean feat to have a short story turned into a film, even a comparatively short movie such as this one. An enjoyable curiosity..

Friday, 17 November 2017

Forgotten Book - Turn the Light Out As You Go

Edgar Lustgarten was a Manchester-born barrister with a love of writing who became a famous criminologist and broadcaster. He is best remembered for introducing the Scotland Yard TV series first screened in the Fifties, which has made a welcome reappearance lately on the Talking Pictures TV channel. He wrote extensively on true crime, but he also dabbled occasionally in fiction.

By far his best known novel is A Case to Answer, aka One More Unfortunate, which was widelyu translated and filmed with Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer, but despite the success of that book, he only wrote a handful of novels over the next thirty years. The very last one, Turn The Light Out As You Go, was published in 1978, the year of his death, and it made little or no impact, partly no doubt because by that time Lustgarten was a name from the past.

It's an unusual novel, though, and one that I found very readable, if flawed. It's a short book which may (I don't know) have been based in some respects on a real life case. Certainly, the treatment of the sexual assault and murder of a young girl is presented in a style almost verging on the documentary.

The focus is on the couple who live next door to the dead girl's family. Joe and Elsie are a middle-aged couple whose marriage has become stale. Elsie wonders - without any very substantial grounds - whether Joe might have killed the little girl - and the suspicion proves corrosive. Joe's life embarks on a downward spiral, even though he becomes friendly with one of the policemen working on the case, who doesn't regard him as a likely suspect. Other people come into the frame before a shock ending that wasn't (to my mind) foreshadowed quite as much as it might have been. It's a curious book in several ways, and the portrayal of working class life seemed a bit dated to me, even by the standards of the late Seventies. Lustgarten was not, I think, first and foremost a creative writer. All the same, I found the story interesting as well as unorthodox.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Mystery Tour - Publication Day!


Today sees the publication of Mystery Tour (Orenda Publishing), the latest anthology of the Crime Writers' Association. Of all the anthologies I've edited for the CWA, this one contains more stories (28! got to be good value, right?) than any other. What's more, they are all making their first appearance in print, although Ann Cleeves' contribution has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. The book is available in attractive hardback and paperback editions.

I can't quite believe it myself, but this is the fifth short story collection I've edited this year - the other four were all published by the British Library in the Crime Classics series. And this year also marks the 21st anniversary of my first CWA anthology, Perfectly Criminal, contributors to which included Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. Ian hadn't broken through at that time, but his story went on to win the CWA Short Story Dagger. In my brief intro to it, I said I believed he was destined to become a major force in the genre. One of my more accurate predictions, it's fair to say!

A good many talented writers feature in Mystery Tour, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them featured in the CWA Dagger lists next year. Regardless of that, there is much to be enjoyed in the book, though I say it myself. You're spared individual story intros from me this time, because my focus was on including as many stories as possible - and the book weighs in at a hefty 100,000 words. Among the authors featured are such leading lights as Peter Lovesey and Cath Staincliffe, and also relatively new kids on the block, the likes of Vaseem Khan, Anna Mazzlola and Paul Gitsham. As ever, I've tried to include a very diverse mix of stories, such as the splendidly inventive "Accounting for Murder" by Christine Poulson.

I've dedicated the book to my colleagues on the CWA Board, a small gesture of appreciation for the hard work they put in to taking the CWA forward in a challenging but exciting period of growth and development. I'm not by nature a "committee person", but I must say that the present members of the Board are an absolute pleasure to work with, and their support is invaluable to me as Chair. I hope they are pleased with the book, and I am optimistic that crime fans will find a great deal in it to relish. Crime Time has already described it as "a cherishable collection", and needless to say, it will make a great Christmas present!







Monday, 13 November 2017

After Ten Years of Blogging...


..it's a good moment to reflect. Actually, the ten-year anniversary was a month ago, but life has been too hectic to allow many moments of reflection. When I started this blog - the first post was on 13 October 2007 - my prime aim was to share my enthusiasm for crime writing. As part of this, I wanted to give  to anyone who was an interested an insight into the joys and frustrations of the professional life of a mid-list crime writer, someone who had been around for quite a long time, without becoming remotely famous. Hence the blog's title. I've often been asked if I write under my name, and it's a polite way of making it clear that the person asking the question has never heard of me.

In 2007, I had no idea of what the future held for me as a writer, but I did tell the story of my first TV option, and the fact that the dizzying excitement  ultimately faded when it became clear that the show would never be made. Ten years on, I've had half a dozen TV options, covering the Harry Devlin series, the Lake District series, and even The Golden Age of Murder, but still none of the scripts has actually made it on to the screen. It's frustrating (though option fees are definitely a consolation), but it's a common situation, and the only sensible reaction is to be philosophical. You can't be lucky all the time. And overall, I've been extraordinarily lucky.

If you'd told me ten years ago what would happen in my writing life over the next decade, I'd have suspected a cruel hoax. Back then, I wasn't even a member of the Detection Club, let alone its President, archivist, and author of The Golden Age of Murder. And I was nowhere near joining the committee of the CWA - my day job made it impossible - let alone becoming its Chair. I'd never won a literary award, and now I've picked up a totally unexpected number here and in the US, as well as various shortlistings. I'd never even set foot in the British Library, whereas in the past year I've been interviewed there by Mark Lawson, conducted a week-end master class there, plotted a murder mystery for their pop-up shop, and compiled my tenth BL anthology, as well as publishing The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books and clocking up more than 40 intros to the Classic Crime series.

The past three years, in particular, have been amazing, and it's hard to figure out exactly what has made the difference. Some of it must be down to the fact that, although I'm still a practising lawyer, I now spend much less time on the law, and much of the energy I devoted to the day job (and endless commuting) is now directed towards writing-related activities. I've found, as many writers found before me, that there are all sorts of fascinating opportunities out there

Since I returned to the UK from the Toronto Bouchercon last month, I've taken part in literary festivals in Lancaster and in Dalton-in-Furness (the ancient capital of Furness might just feature in the next Lake District Mystery!) and given library talks in York, Beeston, and West Bridgford and a bookshop talk in Bramhall. I've  hosted the CWA Daggers Awards and the Detection Club's main annual dinner, survived a CWA board meeting without provoking my admirable colleagues to launch a coup d'etat, enjoyed an excellent lunch with the CWA's Northern Chapter, and given a talk in London to a marvellous group of American crime fans, as well as signing a pile of copies of the CWA anthology Mystery Tour at Goldsboro Books and piles of other books in Foyles and Waterstones. It's been a mad whirl of activity, but hugely enjoyable.

And I hope that if there are any writers, or would-be writers, reading this who are struggling with confidence at present, my story may offer them a bit of encouragement. Despite all the pitfalls, it's a privilege to live a writer's life, and I hate to see talented authors become so discouraged that they give up, something that happens far too often.

Writing is, as I said at the Dagger awards, a tough game, and setbacks are many; even in the past couple of weeks, I've had a couple of projects run into snags. I'm still very, very far from being a Big Name among authors. But surely the point about writing is to try to make the most of your skills and your opportunities, and hope that an occasional lucky break will compensate for all the knock-backs, however numerous the latter. Above all, the key is to have a good time, no matter how many well-meaning people keep wanting to know if you write under your own name!







Friday, 10 November 2017

Forgotten Book - The Announcer

I've talked previously about Donald Henderson, a writer who has long intrigued me. Because he died young, his work fell out of print quite quickly, and he's hardly ever been discussed in reference books (though I do talk about him in The Story of Classic Crime). Recently, I read his 1946 book, The Announcer, and found it extremely enjoyable.

The book's alternative title in the US, and perhaps a better one, was A Voice Like Velvet, which is a phrase taken from the story, concerning the protagonist, Ernest Bisham. He happens to be a BBC radio announcer by day. But he is also, by night....wait for it...a cat-burglar!

As a premise this carries, perhaps a whiff of the absurd, but in a pleasing way. Henderson worked for the BBC, and he has a great deal of fun with his account of BBC life. I'm sure it appealed to his ironic sense of humour to imagine a very correct announcer as a master-criminal. His wit reminds me of Francis Iles, and he shares Iles' interest in true crime: Crippen, Jack the Ripper, and Neil Cream are among the killers name-checked in the story.

Like Iles, Henderson had considerable gifts as a novelist. This is a well-written story, with plenty of nice lines, but he also manages to create suspense in a very pleasing way. I found myself rooting for Ernest even when he behaved foolishly, and especially when he found himself in tricky situations, facing almost certain discovery. This really is a hidden gem.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Lady of Deceit - aka Born to Kill - 1947 film review

Lady of Deceit, also known as Born to Kill was directed by Robert Wise, who much later was responsible for The Sound of Music. Two films more different in tone as well as storyline would be hard to imagine. Lady of Deceit, based on James Gunn's novel Deadlier Than the Male, is a dark story about amoral people, and this may account for the fact that it didn't do particularly well on first release. Uplifting it is not.

Claire Trevor plays Helen Trent, who has gone to Reno to get a divorce. Whilst she's there, she gets to know a breezy young woman who goes out with a new man, much to displeasure of Sam Wild (played by Lawrence Tierney), who is obsessed with her. Wild kills both his ex and her admirer. Helen discovers the bodies, but decides not to get involved, and goes back to San Francisco. At the station, she bumps into Wild, and they fall for each other.

However, Helen is engaged to a rich young chap, much to Wild's displeasure. Helen  is the foster sister of wealthy Georgia, played by Audrey Long (who was married at one time to Leslie Charteris, creator of the Saint). Wild seduces nice but naive Georgia, and they marry, but Wild and Helen remain besotted with each other. Wild's admiring chum Marty (Elisha Cook Jr) joins the not very happy household, and when a friend of Wild's victim hires a lazy and unreliable private eye, Marty tries to protect Wild, before events spin out of control.

Esther Howard, who hires the P.I., is perhaps the most appealing character in the film, not that the competition is strong. She's an alcoholic, but she is trying to do the right thing by her friend. Claire Trevor does a good job as the "iceberg" Helen, but I felt that Lawrence Tierney, who late in life became more famous than ever thanks to appearing in Reservoir Dogs, was wooden in the extreme. He tries to be a tough guy in the Humphrey Bogart style, and apparently was a tough guy in real life. But his lack of charisma is a big drawback. Robert Mitchum would have done a much better job, I feel. All the same, this downbeat movie is watchable from start to finish.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Crime Classics in 2018


The British Library recently published its catalogue for the first six months of next year, and this gives me a chance to talk about some of the titles in the Classic Crime series that will be coming the way of fans of Golden Age fiction before very long. It's an eclectic mix, and one that personally, I'm very pleased with.

I've already mentioned on this blog that I've compiled a new anthology of classic railway mysteries, called Blood on the Tracks. In the past there have been a few railway-themed short story collections, but I've managed to track down some stories that I'm fairly sure will be unfamiliar to the overwhelming majority of readers, as well as some that may be known to aficionados, but deserve a fresh life.

Then there's the republication of Richard Hull. I've talked about Hull's work both on this blog and in The Golden Age of Murder (and, come to that, in The Story of Classic Crime - I guess you could call me a fan!) He was a disciple of Francis Iles, and a very interesting writer indeed. Two of his best books will appear next year: The Murder of My Aunt and Excellent Intentions. I'm pleased to say that, thanks to members of his family, the introductions will contain quite a bit of fresh info about the life of this most creative of crime-writing accountant.

I'm also delighted to say that there will be two books from another writer whom I've championed, E.C. R. Lorac - Bats in the Belfry and Fire in the Thatch. I was introduced to Lorac's work by my parents, who were enthusiastic about her later work, set in Lunedale. These two books were written earlier. Bats in the Belfry has a great setting in London, while Fire in the Thatch, as you might guess, is a rural mystery

Among the authors whose novels are republished in the Classic Crime series are quite a few whom I've long hoped to revive - Anthony Berkeley, Raymond Postgate, Christopher St John Sprigg, Anne Meredith, and Freeman Wills Crofts among them. Hull and Lorac are two more authors whom I really enjoy, and I am optimistic that these reissues will find a highly appreciative new readership.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Forgotten Book - The Gold Star Line

The Gold Star Line, first published in 1899, is a collection of six stories written in collaboration by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace. Their names appear together on the title page, though only Meade's name appears on the front cover and the spine.I don't know if the book ever had a dust jacket. My copy is one that I managed to acquire from a dealer, and its great point of interest is that it has the Detection Club bookplate, and a label pasted into it indicating that Eustace presented it to the Club's library in October 1933. (The library was auctioned off years ago, before I was involved with the Club.)

So Eustace was evidently pleased to be associated with the book, and I'm as sure as I can be that his role was as ideas man. There are at least two stories in the book which have plots turning on points involving medical or scientific expertise, and it's a safe assumption that these were contributed by Eustace. I'd imagine that Meade did all the writing; she was a big name in her day, and a prolific and versatile novelist.

The stories are all narrated by George Conway, purser employed by the Gold Star Line. Conway recounts a series of adventures in which he played a part; much, but by no means all, of the action takes place either on board ship or while the ship has landed somewhere in the course of a voyage. The range of international locations gives the book a cosmopolitan feel, which would have been a good selling point at the time.

Conway is a likeable fellow, but we learn very little about his personal life. For Meade and Eustace, the action is the thing. I found the stories agreeable light (very light) entertainment, and the scientific plot twists in "The Rice-Paper Chart" and "The Yellow Flag" were quite clever. They offer a pleasing glimpse into a vanished world, as well as an example of lively crime fiction at the end of the nineteenth century. Eustace would, of course, go on to further collaborative success more than twenty years later, on that famous short story "The Tea Leaf" (with Edgar Jepson) and on The Documents in the Case with Dorothy L. Sayers.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Consequences of Love - 2004 film review

Consequences of Love is a much-lauded Italian film written and directed by Paola Sorrentino. It takes a while to get going, but the wait for action is worthwhile. This is an inriguing thriller with a poignant ending. The fact that, for most of the film, one really has no idea where it is heading is a good thing. Curiosity kept me watching, and the way the story develops did not disappoint.

Toni Servillo plays Titta, a man just coming up to his fiftieth birthday, who has spent the last eight years living a solitary life in a hotel in Lugano, Switzerland. There's something odd about him, and we soon learn that he's a heroin user. He injects himself, regular as clockwork, once a week. He owns a gun. And he plays cards with an elderly couple who have fallen on hard times, and who indulge in mild cheating. And he ignores the greetings of the pretty young woman, Sofia, who works in the hotel bar. What explains his strange ways?

Piece by piece, we're able to fit together the jigsaw of his life. He is married, but his wife and three children have virtually nothing to do with him. He has a gregarious younger brother, a surf instructor, who takes a shine to Sofia. But she prefers Titta, despite his habitual rudeness. It's all very odd, very low-key, but the story bursts into life when two thugs show up in Titta's room.

I won't say any more about the way the plot develops, but I will say that this is one of those films that I think would repay a second viewing. Knowing Titta's story, it would be interesting to watch how Sorrentino artfully drops hints about what is coming. An off-beat film, certainly, but well worth looking out for.  

Radio Cab Murder - 1954 film review

Radio Cab Murder is a rather likeable 1954 British B-movie, typical of its era, and short enough not to grow tedious. The aim was to give an impression of authenticity and topicality, rather like the Scotland Yard TV series of the same vintage. Of course, the drawback of such an approach is that, years later, the material seems dated. But if it's a period piece, it's an entertaining one.

Jimmy Hanley is a driver for Radio Cabs who witnesses a robbery and gives chase to the villains before they escape him. He becomes something of a hero, but he's also a man with a past. After leaving the army, he had become a safecracker, and has served time in prison for his crimes. But now he's going straight, with a girlfriend at Radio Cabs HQ.

His new life becomes increasingly dramatic when the police conclude that a gang of robbers are planning to recruit him to help with their next job. He agrees to help trap the crooks, and his supposed dismissal from Radio Cabs is contrived. Sure enough, the bad guys, led by the ubiquitous Sam Kydd, enlist his aid for their proposed robbery. But the information they give him is phoney, and when he relays it to the police, they are duly led astray.

The bank robbery duly takes place, and I must say I thought the bad guys were remarkably cavalier about leaving their fingerprints all over the scene of the crime. Evidently there are limits to attempts at authenticity. Sam Kydd does his usual sound job, and there's a small part for Frank Thornton, who would later become famous as Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served? All in all, a good piece of light entertainment, still very watchable.

Whirlpool - 1959 film review

Whirlpool is a crime film from 1959 which is quite enjoyable, although the action doesn't really whirl along. At times, it almost has the feel of a travelogue, as the director lingers on shots of the river Rhine, where the action takes place. The screenplay was based on a book by Lawrence P. Bachmann called Lorelei, and the climactic scene takes place at that most fascinating part of the river, by the Lorelei rock.

Juliette Greco plays Lora, who is trying to escape the clutches of a ruthless criminal called Herman (William Sylvester). When he kills someone he was trying to scam, the pair make a dash for it, and Lora finishes us hitching a lift on a cargo boat. On board are Rolph, the skipper, his colleague Georg (played by Marius Goring, who later starred in the forensic science crime series The Expert) and Georg's wife (played by Muriel Pavlow, who was once briefly the girlfriend of that splendid detective novelist Edmund Crispin).

Tensions mount on board as Dina, who fancies Rolph, takes a serious dislike to Lora. Meanwhile, the police are trying to catch up with Herman, and he in turn is trying to catch up with Lora. Since Lora is stunningly attractive, it's no surprise that both Georg and Rolph take a shine to her, as does the young cabin boy, Derek. Lora is well characterised and well acted, although the other major parts are less memorable, and Pavlow is rather wasted as Dina fades out of the main action..

I felt the story moved too slowly for this film to be counted as a complete success. The director, Lewis Allen, was evidently trying for something more sophisticated than a commonplace thriller, but the thrills were a bit too sporadic for my taste. However, the scenery is gorgeous. It's more than thirty years since I took my very first cruise on the Rhine, and Whirlpool brought back plenty of pleasant memories, even if the story itself is rather forgettable.  

Monday, 30 October 2017

The CWA Dagger Awards 2017


The CWA Dagger Awards Gala Dinner is one of the major occasions, perhaps the major occasion, in the crime writing world, in Britain at least. I've attended quite a number of Dagger award ceremonies (for a while they were lunches rather than dinners) over the past twenty years, but last Thursday's Gala Dinner at the Grange City Hotel in London was a very different experience, because in my capacity of Chair of the CWA, I was hosting the event. To say that this took me way outside my comfort zone would be an under-statement, but as things turned out, it was a marvellous evening, and Hayley and the organising team deserve huge credit for making sure that everything went so well. Thanks also to Gary Stratmann, our photographer for the evening.



Huge credit also goes to our Master of Ceremonies, the inimitable Barry Forshaw, whom I presented with a CWA Red Herring award. Barry, the consummate professional,  made sure that the ceremony went with a swing. And our guest speaker was absolutely excellent. He was Robert Thorogood, creator and writer of Death in Paradise, who proved to be both witty and charming. We had a very enjoyable chat about Golden Age fiction, of which (as those who have watched the show can guess) he is a huge fan. Robert had a tough act to follow, because last year James Runcie was a splendid guest speaker, but we were lucky to have someone equally impressive this time around.


I've attended quite a lot of awards ceremonies over the years, in the legal world as well as in the writing world, and the one thing I've learned is that, if you aren't careful, they can drag on, and the audience becomes bored. I vividly remember legal dinners where sweepstakes were run to guess the length of the seemingly interminable speeches. We were determined to make sure this didn't happen on Thursday.. Whilst it's obviously essential not to rush through awards in such a way that they make no real impression, the pace of the evening's events was an important element in creating the feelgood factor that prevailed from start to finish. An added bonus for me was that a story from a book I'd edited, Motives for Murder, won the CWA Short Story Dagger., though I hasten to emphasise that the judging process is completely independent!


It was a glittering occasion, and the audience of 250 people included such stars as Peter Capaldi and Brenda Blethyn. I talked briefly about the progress the CWA has made this year, and had the great pleasure of presenting Ann Cleeves with the CWA Diamond Dagger. All in all, a memorable occasion, a career highlight, and one that (now it's over!) I shall look back on with enormous and lasting pleasure. 



Friday, 27 October 2017

Forgotten Book - Time to Change Hats

Margot Bennett was one of the most interesting British crime writers of the immediate post-war era, and although her career was not a lengthy one, her reputation survived thanks to the advocacy of Julian Symons, who was a fan of her work, and praised it in Bloody Murder. Like many people, I was led to Bennett's work in the 70s and 80s by Symons.

Her books were, however, hard to find. I did eventually catch up with The Man Who Didn't Fly at the start of the 80s, and years later I was commissioned to write an intro to it for the late lamented Black Dagger reprint series. It's a very good book, and I recommend it. I also found, after years of searching, Away Went the Little Fish, her second book, which features the private eye John Davies. But until recently I'd never come across her debut, and Davies' first case.

This is Time to Change Hats, published in 1945, but very definitely set during war-time, with references to the Home Gaurd, and a rural village invaded by evacuees. I'm very pleased with my copy, inscribed by Bennett to her agent, and marked "the first copy". But what about the story?

The first thing to be said about the book is that it's very well-written. Bennett was a class act, and she had a flair for phrase-making. The early pages are excellent. However, I have to say that before long the story begins to drag somewhat. Bennett herself commented that her idea was to mix mystery with comedy, but that the book was too long. It's an honest assessment. There is much to enjoy here, but the story isn't gripping, because the style is too discursive. However, it's an interesting book which shows a writer of talent learning her craft. Not a masterpiece, but certainly more sophisticated than most first crime novels of the period.


Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Landslide - 1937 film review

Landslide is one of those "quota quickie" films from the Thirties that provide a glimpse into a vanished world. It's a murder mystery with a theatrical background which provides a classic "closed circle" of suspects scenario when the theatre - located in a small Welsh town- is engulfed in a landslide, making it impossible for anyone to get in or out, while a series of crimes is committed.

So Donovan Pedelty, writer and director, offers quite a rich mix of ingredients. The result is, I think, a curate's egg of a movie, as variable as the grasp that one or two members of the cast have on their Welsh accents. It's very dated, for sure, though I suspect that even in 1937, Pedelty was offering a picture of a vanishing way of life - the focus is on a small troupe of actors led by a dodgy manager struggling to make ends meet as tastes in entertainment changed.

The leads are a young couple, played by Jimmy Hanley and Dinah Sheridan. They have fallen in love, though matters are complicated by the fact that Hanley's ex is also a member of the cast, and is threatening to sue for breach of promise. Hanley, a former child star, was a big name in his day, and five years after the film was released, he and Dinah Sheridan married. They are among the actors who are complaining that their boss owes them money, when a woman who works at the theatre is found to have been murdered. Money has gone missing - who is the culprit? A local policeman arrives, but then the theatre is engulfed, and the question is who if anyone will survive until the time when help comes.

The structure of the story is unusual, since quite some time elapses before the first death occurs, and I found myself wondering whether I was watching a crime film at all. There's quite a bit of comedy along the way, but inevitably much of this now seems very old-fashioned indeed. Overall, I'd say that this one is definitely worth watching, but partly because it's got curiosity value.

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Business of Murder

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

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

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

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