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...'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.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Guest Blog - Fiona Veitch Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 20 October 2017

Forgotten Book - Too Many Cousins

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Back from Bouchercon

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 October 2017

Midnight Fear - 1990 film review

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 October 2017

Forgotten Book - Fear to Tread

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Mrs Pym of Scotland Yard - film review

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Night Visitor - film review

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 October 2017

Forgotten Book - The Bornless Keeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Foreign Bodies - a new British Library anthology

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

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

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

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

Monday, 2 October 2017


The arrival of a new issue of CADS is always a cause for celebration. Geoff Bradley's "irregular magazine of comment and criticism about crime and detective fiction" has now reached issue 76. That very irregularity is one of the pleasures of CADS - one never quite knows when the next issue will arrive, a touch of quirkiness that I find very attractive.

It comes as quite a shock to me to realise that I've known Geoff for 27 years. We first met at a memorable Bouchercon in London in 1990. I'd read that there was to be a quiz about crime fiction, so I expressed an interest. What I hadn't realised was that it was to be closely modelled on BBC TV's Mastermind, and when I said that my special interest was "detectives", that meant the questions in the special round ranged far and wide. Geoff kept score, and Maxim Jakubowski set the questions. I'd never met Maxim until then either - now he is one of the CWA's two Vice Chairs and I am the Chair. Who would have predicted that? Not me.

One oft the other three contestants (the others were Sarah J. Mason, a writer with whom I'm still in touch, and Jim Huang from the States) was Tony Medawar. Tony is someone else I'd never met before that day. Since then, I think I've learned more from his researches than from the research of any other Golden Age fan, with the possible exceptions of John Curran and Barry Pike. In CADS 76, Tony is at it again, with a terrific article about "the lost cases of Lord Peter Wimsey". For any Sayers fan, that is a must-read.

As usual, there is plenty of other good stuff. Pete Johnson writes about Andrew Garve, and Barry Pike about Reggie Fortune, while Kate Jackson, who has emerged in recent times as a prolific and interesting blogger, contributes a thoughtful article about mystery fiction and individualism. Liz Gilbey and John Cooper are among a range of other knowledgeable contributors, and I was especially pleased to read John's discussion of the books of Kay Mitchell. Kay's an old friend of mine who has not published a book, sadly, for a very long time, but her work is definitely worth seeking out. I have to confess that three books of mine are reviewed in this issue, but I can promise you that isn't why I recommend this magazine. Over the years, CADS has made a contribution to research about the genre that is both unique and invaluable.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Forgotten Book - The Box Office Murders

The Box Office Murders and The Purple Sickle Murders were the original British and American titles of a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts which has now been reprinted as Inspector French and the Box Office Murders. It was first published in 1929, and although it's a murder mystery, it's not a typical Golden Age whodunit but rather a lively thriller set mainly in London.

Inspector French is consulted by a young woman called Thurza Darke (great name!) who works as a clerk in a box office. She has got herself into a tricky situation with an unscrupulous bunch of people, and seeks his guidance. He is impressed by her manner, and arranges to meet her at the National Gallery, but she doesn't turn up. Unfortunately, her body is soon found, and it appears that someone has drowned her.

French, I thought, was rather remiss in not having the girl watched for her own protection, but clearly the police did things differently in those days. I was surprised when French later indulges in burglary of a suspect's premises, and even more startled when he not only breaks in somewhere else, but enlists the support of a subordinate and the subordinate's young son in so dong. Blimey!

But these quibbles don't matter, and I enjoyed the story. It's quite fast-moving, and Crofts cleverly obscures the reality of the criminal scheme of the gang of murderers responsible for killing several young women who worked as box office clerks. Not an orthodox police procedural, by any means, but a very welcome reprint, not least because it illustrates that Crofts was a more versatile writer than he has often been given credit for. His literary style may have been plain, but I must say that the more of his work I read, the more I appreciate his considerable skills as a plotsmith.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

One and a half million...

While I was sunning myself in north Italy and Switzerland last week, relishing the charms of places like Lugano (above), and Bergamo, (below) I had the chance to reflect on how much has happened to me since I began this blog almost ten years ago. It's been an extraordinary period in my life, with the most difficult experiences (above all, the death of my mother) and much good luck. I've spent quality time with some wonderful people, and visited some fantastic places. Even as I appreciated the scenery while travelling from St Moritz to Tirano on the Bernina Experess, I found myself reflecting on the strange quirks of life. There have been plenty of those over the past decade,and more than ever before I am convinced that one simply has to make the most of the good times while one can. So, for instance, on visiting Bergamo, I decided I really had to write a story set there. And before I left that day, I'd mapped it out in my mind.

For me, making the most of things means, for example, writing the short stories and books that I believe in,rather than those I think might stand the best chance of selling in big numbers. Oddly enough, I always assumed The Golden Age of Murder would be a niche project, either produced by a small press or self-published. I still can't really get over the fact that Harper Collins took it on, and that it not only sold very well but also won four awards and was shortlisted for two others. My association with the British Library, hugely positive, also came out of the blue. It's a funny old world.

Strange as it may seem, writing this blog has never felt like hard work. More like a chat with one or two friends. That's probably why I've now written more than 2500 blog posts (blimey!) since I started out. And a couple of days ago, the blog passed the landmark of 1.5 million visits. Something else I never expected.

In my first post, I said: The aim is to share my enthusiasm for crime fiction, and the craft of writing. From childhood, I dreamed of becoming a crime novelist - and I love being part of a fascinating world. I’m not only a writer, but a fan, and I’ll have lots to say about lots of terrific and often overlooked books and films, past and present. As for my own writing life, I’ll share the frustrations - and also the pleasures. If this blog encourages any would-be writers among you to keep at it, I’ll be delighted. 

When I wrote those words, I'd never won a literary award (though I'd been a published crime novelist since 1991) and I certainly never dreamed I would become Chair of the CWA, or President of the Detection Club, let alone both. So - very fortunate indeed. I'd like to think that others can draw at least some encouragement from what I've said about my experiences on this blog. You just never know what the future may bring. And even if things don't always go well, there's always the hope that something new and good and unexpected lurks just around the corner.  

Monday, 25 September 2017

In the footsteps of Hemingway and Hesse...

I'm just back from a delightful week in north Italy and Switzerland which gave me the chance to explore Italy's very own Lake District. Quite different from the stamping ground of Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind (not least in the absence of rain!) but equally attractive. And although the English Lakes are perhaps more closely associated in the public mind with literary giants, the Italian lakes have their fair share of notable literary connections.

Our base was Moltrasio, a pleasant village on the west shore of Lake Como, not too far from the Swiss border. Across the lake, just a five minute boat ride away, is Torno, an even more picturesque place which caught the fancy of Herman Hesse when he visited the area just before the First World War. There's something quite magical about the little harbour and surrounding piazza. Thanks to a good (and cheap) day ticket system, I took a look at quite a few places on the shore of the lake, and each has its own distinct personality and charm. Como itself is an interesting city and a funicular railway takes one all the way up to Brunate, high above the waterline.

Another lake on the itinerary was Lake Maggiore, and the town of Stresa. Ernest Hemingway convalesced there after being wounded during the First World War. He stayed in the magnificent Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees, which he revisited many years later. His experiences in Italy provide some of the background material for A Farewell to Arms, a book I read as a schoolboy, and which still lingers in my memory. I've not read many of his other novels; that's the one that impressed me particularly.

One of the pleasures of Stresa is that you can take a boat to the lake's fascinating islands. I found Isola Bella absolutely stunning. The gardens and the palazzo are equally magnificent. A short hop away is "Fisherman's Island", a small but bustling place crammed with bars and restaurants. Hemingway, like Hesse, knew a great place when he saw one.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Forgotten Books - The Pyx

John Buell was a Canadian academic and, it seems, quite a retiring person, who combined his day job with writing. He was far from prolific, but his work earned plenty of praise in its day. I came across mention of his debut novel The Pyx, first published in 1959, and thought it sounded interesting, so I picked up a copy - and I'm glad I did.

The premise is familiar. A young woman falls to her death from a tall building. Accident, suicide or murder? It is, of course, the same initial scenario as we find in Robert Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling - and plenty of other books. But the material is handled with great assurance considering that the author was making his debut as a novelist. Buell wrote taut and gripping prose, and told an interesting story well.

His method is to alternate between events in the present, when Detective Henderson tries to find out what led to the death of young and beautiful Elizabeth Lucy, and events in the days leading up to her untimely demise. Elizabeth was a prostitute, addicted to heroine, and effectively a captive, at the beck and call of Meg Latimer. But Meg herself is at the mercy of ruthless men. Both women are victims.

It's a short, snappy book, and given added depth and interest by religious imagery and plot elements. Catholicism plays a central part in the story. I found this book a good,read. The mood is bleak throughout, but that didn't stop my admiring Buell's laconic style and occasional touches of wry humour. The book was adapted into a film in the 70s, starring Christopher Plummer and Karen Black. Reviews suggest that the movie isn't anything like as good as the book.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Delavine Affair - film review

The Delavine Affair is a snappy B movie from 1954 (some sources say 1955) which was based on a story called Winter Wears a Shroud, written by Robert Chapman. I've not been able to find out anything much about Chapman or the original story, but the film is a competent mystery which, like so many crime films of that era, featured some very good actors as well as the occasional rather wooden lead.

The lead in this case is Peter Reynolds, who hailed from Wilmslow, and sadly died young. Here he plays a newspaper agency man called Banner who is contacted by a hellfire preacher called Gospel Joe. But when he goes to see Joe, he finds him dead. The police turn up, having been tipped off that Joe has been mrudered, and our hero becomes the prime suspect.

He has the good fortune to be married to Honor Blackman, but she thinks he spends too much time at work, and has taken up with an admirer played by Gordon Jackson.  Banner discovers that there appears to be a connection between Joe's death and a robbery - the as yet unsolved Delavine jewel theft - which took place some time back.

Banner's investigations bring him into contact with a mixed bag of characters, played by Michael Balfour and Katie (The Ladykillers) Johnson. There are a number of pleasing plot twists, and overall this is a decent crime film, unpretentious but perfectly competent. I'd be interested to know more about Winter Wears a Shroud, if any readers of this blog are familiar with it.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Scarlet Web - 1954 movie review

The Scarlet Web is a black and white British B-movie first screened in 1954, and it's a film with a number of interesting elements in its storyline - the script was written by Doreen Montgomery. It opens with quite a novel situation. A young and attractive blonde woman (Zena Marshall) parks outside a prison. Among the prisoners released for freedom is Griffith Jones. She offers him a lift - and a proposition. Will this man with a criminal past help her and her husband, a man called Dexter, to recover a compromising document?

Unfortunately, she's made a poor choice. Jones' character isn't actually a hardened criminal at all. he's an insurance investigator who has spent the past couple of months  inside on behalf of his employers, trying to find out vital information from another prisoner.  He goes along with the plan out of curiosity. But things go pear-shaped when he's drugged by his new friend, and framed for the murder of a woman who proves to be the real Mrs Dexter.

Aided and abetted by a colleague in the insurance firm (Hazel Court), our hero tries to establish his innocence and also to figure out exactly what is going on. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Dexter has a girlfriend, and that they have conspired to murder his wife for the insurance money, but proving the truth is far from easy.

This is a lively, unpretentious little film, and the appearance of those reliable supporting actors Ronnie Stevens and Michael Balfour in cameo roles is a bonus. Jones is a rather wooden hero, but the two female leads make more of an impression. Our hero soon falls for Hazel Court, and the outcome is predictable, but overall the film offers likeable light entertainment. .