Friday, 23 March 2018

Forgotten Book - The Progress of a Crime

One of the first contemporary crime novels I read - in fact, I think it may have been the very first after my early diet of Christie and Sayers - was Julian Symons' The Progress of a Crime. It was first published in 1960 and I read it about ten years later. I remember borrowing it from a friend of my father's, having spotted it on his bookshelves. It's a drab title, and a bleak book, but it won an Edgar, and it's widely regarded as one of Symons' best books. I was probably too young for it at the age of 13 or 14, but I liked it, and I enjoyed it all over again when I reread it recently.

The setting is a provincial newspaper, and the protagonist is a young and rather naive reporter called Hugh. By accident, he gets mixed up in a murder case on Guy Fawkes night. But this isn't a classic whodunit. There's no doubt that a man called Corby has been killed by one or more members of a gang of youths. The interest of the story lies in Symons' merciless portrayal of damaged lives - the gang members, the failed journalists, the bullying policemen - and of the shortcomings of the justice system.

There is a very good extended trial scene. Symons had a real gift for courtroom drama, and he was advised by his friend, the author Michael Underwood, on legal procedure, so there is an authentic feeling to this section of the book, which was written long before the controversial development of the "joint enterprise" principle in gang cases. Symons also spent some time in a Bristol newspaper office, so as to capture the whiff of life among the reporters; this too is very well done.

With hindsight, reading this book was an important milestone for me, the beginning of a transition as a youthful reader from the classic world of Poirot, Marple, and Wimsey to modern realism: this is certainly Symons' grittiest book. What I've learned since then, is that both types of novel, as well as other types, have the potential to be highly entertaining. The key question is: how well has the writer told the story? Here, in crisp, sardonic prose, Symons tells a dark and often depressing story very well.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

The Story of Classic Crime - the paperback is coming...

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books has been a lucky book for me. In fact my whole relationship with its publisher, the British Library, has been a very fortunate one as far as I'm concerned. And I'm pleased with the cover of the UK paperback scheduled for publication on 5 July, which has just been finalised - here it is.
When I first conceived the book, I was conscious that it might be, or might at least be perceived as, something of an anti-climax following The Golden Age of Murder, which truly was a once-in-a-lifetime book, shortlisted for six awards, winning four, and reaching readers around the world. This didn't concern me, because I've always written primarily because of the sheer satisfaction of writing, but I did want to make the book as interesting and as worthwhile for crime fans as I possibly could.

The British Library were hugely supportive, and to my delight the book was extremely well received. The first print run sold out quickly, and there were an amazing number of positive reviews. Some of those from the national press feature now on the paperback cover. It even earned a place in the Agatha award shortlist. I'm looking forward to promoting the paperback at various events, including pre-publication events such as Alibis in the Archive and Bodies from the Library.

On the subject of reviews, incidentally, I had an interesting conversation the other day with a well-known publisher who's been around the business for a long time and enjoyed a lot of success. He told me that at least as regards press reviews, he had no doubt that it's far better for a book to get bad reviews than no reviews. He said he'd always had trouble persuading his authors that was the case, but almost invariably he saw a strong correlation between a review in (say) Kirkus Reviews in the US, and sales, even if Kirkus didn't like the book one bit. I suppose this simply demonstrates the way that marketing works. And at least it's a consolation if someone gives your masterpiece a thumbs-down!

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Inquest - 1939 film review

Inquests have provided scenes and storylines for many good crime narratives. The American author Percival Wilde, for instance, wrote a novel with this title that is well worth remembering. But today I'm looking at a short British black and white film made in 1939 by the Boulting Brothers before they became famous. It's based on a play by Michael Barringer, a writer who came to Britain from his native Canada and was especially prolific during the 30s.

It's a film which lacks stars - or perhaps it's simply that I'd never heard of any of the cast members. My hopes weren't especially high when I sat down to watch the film, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's actually quite gripping, with a storyline that kept me interested from start to finish, even though the basic format was familiar.

The peace of a village in the English countryside is disturbed when a chap finds a gun hidden in his cottage. What's more, someone has fired a bullet from it. Inquiries reveal that it belonged to a woman called Margaret Hamilton, who used to live there, and whose husband died, apparently from natural causes. When confronted, Mrs Hamilton (Elizabeth Allan) pleads ignorance but it seems she knows more than she is letting on. She has a boyfriend whose father is a leading barrister, and an exhumation reveals that her husband was actually shot, rather than dying of heart failure, as had been supposed (quite a shocking mistake to make, you might think...). When an inquest is convened, the barrister warns her that she is in for a rough ride, as the evidence is mounting that she killed her husband in order to start a new life.

The way in which coroners' inquests were conducted in the 30s became something of a scandal, and this film shows a coroner abusing his powers to conduct a witch hunt against Mrs Hamilton. It's all rather neatly done, and the plot develops in a pleasing way as the truth about Hamilton's death gradually emerges. Well worth watching..  

Monday, 19 March 2018

Blogging about Veronica's Room

Writing, as I've said often enough, is a tough game. But I've always believed that the pleasures and rewards far outweigh the downsides. And that's true of writing a blog. The rewards aren't financial, of course, because I don't take advertisements on this blog, and I don't intend to. The aim here is simply to share some of my enthusiasms. But the rewards are often unexpected, and are particularly gratifying when they take the form of unexpected contacts from readers.

I've had many happy experiences of such contacts, and the other day I received a comment from Tonya on a post dating back five and a half years, no less. It was a post about Ira Levin's play Veronica's Room  and it was a bittersweet moment when I realised that the first comment came from my friend and fellow blogger Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona, whose life was so sadly cut short by cancer.

Unlike Maxine, I'd never had the chance to watch a performance of the play, but Tonya kindly drew my attention to a Youtube video of a performance in which she took part, back in 1994. And I grabbed the first chance I had to watch it. Good old Youtube!

It's a very creepy play indeed (I see from the internet that a few years back, Harvey Weinstein was planning to film it...) and won't be to everyone's taste, for sure. It wasn't a big hit, unlike Levin's Deathtrap, which was more light-hearted, but I find the games that Levin plays with notions of identity truly fascinating. I like crime stories where people are not who they seem, and this is an extremely intriguing example. I'm so glad that Tonya got in touch.

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Reckless Moment - 1949 film review

Eight years ago (blimey!) I reviewed on this blog The Deep End, a film starring Tilda Swinton and based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Blank Wall. I was underwhelmed by that version of the story, I'm afraid, but when the chance came along to watch an earlier movie adaptation of the book, I decided to take a look. And I'm glad I did.

The Reckless Moment, released in 1949 is a domestic film noir of real merit. Joan Bennett, in her day quite a star, plays Lucia, a wife and mother who is preoccupied by family responsibilities at a time when her beloved husband is working abroad. She's a bossy mum, really, constantly chiding her son about his clothes, and taking it upon herself to tell an unpleasant unsuitable man who is seeing her 17 year old daughter that he must stop. She is even willing to offer him money to make himself scarce. It's not my idea of great parenting, and it doesn't work well. The chap, who is admittedly loathsome, turns up at the family home, where he and Lucia's daughter quarrel. She strikes him and then runs for it, and in a freak accident he winds up dead.

Lucia discovers his body, and in another desperately unwise move, decides to conceal the death. Needless to say, things soon start to unravel. The body is found, and the police start a murder hunt. Meanwhile, an unsavoury duo who have got hold of the girl's letters to the deceased set about blackmailing Lucia.

This is where the film becomes interesting, and it's all due to the relationship between James Mason, one of the bad guys, and Lucia. He finds himself falling in love with her, while she desperately tries to raise the money to buy him and his partner off. Although Mason's character behaves with improbable decency, he is such a charismatic actor that it's not too hard to suspend disbelief, while Lucia's valiant determination to keep her family safe makes up for her intermittent recklessness. A well-made film, and one I enjoyed rather more than The Deep End.

Forgotten Book - Invisible Weapons

Image result for invisible weapons john rhode

Invisible Weapons, first published in 1938, is one of John Rhode's innumerable mysteries; it's been hard to find for many years, but has now reappeared in a new paperback edition from Harper Collins. Rhode fans will, I'm sure, be absolutely delighted, as the chances of finding a first edition in decent nick at an affordable price are negligible. And it's a story which, in many ways, strikes me as typical of Rhode, both in terms of his strengths and his weaknesses.

Let's take the strengths first. The book is divided into two parts, and concerns two distinct crimes (although it's surely not a spoiler to reveal that there is a connection between them). The first victim is an elderly man, who is murdered in highly mysterious circumstances in the home of a doctor, while a police officer is present in the house. It's a locked room killing, and nobody can figure out how the crime was committed, even though there are strong reasons to suspect the doctor, who has been living beyond his means, and whose wife was the deceased's heir.

When the riddle is finally solved by Dr Lancelot Priestley, it turns out to be a variation of an old trick, but very pleasingly handled. There's also a complicated puzzle about the death of a rich and soon-to-be-married man in the second half of the book. Once again, Rhode deals with the mechanics of the crime in an assured way. He was a man with a practical turn of mind, and like Dorothy L. Sayers, he was rather more interested in howdunit than whodunit.

But, unlike Sayers, he had no ambitions as a literary stylist, and therefore the culprit's ingenious m.o. is the focus of interest. The culprit's character and motivation are of very subordinate importance, and here, as so often with Rhode, I found this a little frustrating. A murderer who indulges in such over-elaboration really deserves to have his crime investigated by a sleuth as formidable as Priestley!

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Essex Book Festival 2018

I spent last week-end taking part in Essex Book Festival. As the name suggests, the Festival involves events all around the county, but I was in Southend-on-Sea for a week-end focusing on crime fiction. It's a long way from Cheshire to Southend, but I accomplished the drive quite easily, only for my car to become immobilised in Southend. Cue a visit from the AA breakdown truck and then a frantic drive to a main dealer to get my key battery fixed - only to find the problem recurred when I returned to Southend. Apparently there are 'problems with electronics' in the vicinity of the hotel where I was staying. I can only assume that Russian hackers are to blame!

Anyway, after this drama, I was more than ready for a drink or three, and spent a convivial evening in the company of Festival organisers and fellow writers, among them Seona Ford, Camilla Shestopal, David Whittle, and Ruth Dudley Edwards. The following morning, David, Ruth, and I took part in a panel chaired by Seona which celebrated the life and work of Edmund Crispin. Later, I attended a talk by David - who wrote an excellent biography of Crispin - about the man behind the books (and the music he wrote under his real name, Bruce Montgomery).

This allowed plenty of time for a bracing walk to the end of Southend's amazing pier - the longest pleasure pier in the world, more than twice the length of two piers I know well, those at Southport and Llandudno. I rather like Southend, and it will feature as one of the settings in my next novel, of which more news (I hope) fairly soon.

On Sunday, I chaired a panel featuring three authors who contributed to Mystery Tour, the CWA anthology: Paul Gitsham, Jeanette Hewitt, and Christine Poulson. We talked about a wide range of subjects concerning the ups and downs of the crime writing life, and it was a good deal of fun, as I think the photo (taken by Cheryl Shorter) makes clear. The Festival is very well organised, and I warmly recommend it.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Beast in the Cellar - 1970 film review

In the green and pleasant English countryside, someone is killing soldiers from a local military base in an especially gruesome way. Is a wild animal responsible, or is something even more sinister going on? This is the premise of a 1970 film written and directed by James Kelley, The Beast in the Cellar. The title is something of a plot giveaway, and needlessly unsophisticated given that Kelley was aiming for something relatively ambitious.

After the first killing, we're introduced to two elderly sisters who live together in a secluded old house, not far away from the base. They have connections with the military through their father, a former war hero. One of the sisters, played by Flora Robson, is the dominant one of the pair, looking after Beryl Reid, an affectionate but not very bright character, rather under her sister's thumb.

Robson and Reid were both very good actors, and one of the features of this film is that the cast is a cut above the average. Tessa Wyatt, hugely popular in those days, not least with me, plays a young nurse, and T.P, McKenna is the detective trying to solve the case. The body count begins to rise. But who has a grudge against the young soldiers?

The plot twists are fairly predictable. Kelley was, I feel sure, trying to combine suspense with a character-driven drama, but he falls rather between two stools. The film is certainly watchable, as you'd expect with such a cast, and a lively score by Tony Macaulay is a bonus - there's even a song performed by, believe it or  not, Ediston Lighthouse. But it's a very talky piece of work, and more of a not very horrific horror film than a crime story. Rural Britain provides plenty of scope for dark drama, just as it does for traditional mysteries, but this film, although it has merits, is really a missed opportunity. .

Monday, 12 March 2018

Blood on the Tracks - out now!

Railways have, for some mysterious reason, long been associated with crime fiction. Is it something to do with the feeling of rage that commuters feel when their train is delayed, or doesn't turn up? Or is there perhaps some subtler explanation? Whatever the truth of it, I'm delighted to say that the latest British Library Crime Classics anthology of vintage mysteries themed around the railways is now available.

Blood on the Tracks (a title I found irresistible, even though I'm not the world's biggest Dylan fan) is quite a chunky volume, I'm glad to say, and I hope that its contents are sufficiently varied to appeal to the broad range of taste of Crime Classics enthusiasts. I called in at the British Library shop last week, the day copies went on sale there, and several were sold during my stay of a few minutes, which augurs quite well.

As in the past when compiling anthologies for this series, I've mixed well-known stories and authors with less renowned counterparts. But when researching the book, I found that a striking number of high-calibre authors had tried their hand at railway mysteries, and even though I'd included examples in previous anthologies, by the likes of John Oxenham and Edmund Crispin, there were still plenty to choose from.

So there are quite a number of famous names in the book, from Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers to the two Michaels, Innes and Gilbert. And among the more obscure titles is "The Railway Carriage" by F. Tennyson Jesse, a writer I find very interesting and whose life and work  I've been researching extensively this past year. Doug Greene's collection of her complete Solange Fontaine stories, incidentally, is most enjoyable. 

Friday, 9 March 2018

Forgotten Book - Death Runs on Skis

Recently I had the opportunity to acquire a signed copy of Death Runs on Skis by Hetty Ritchie, a book and author I confess I'd never heard of. A quick check of Al Hubin's monumental bibliography indicated that this was her one and only novel, dating from 1935, but further information was almost impossible to find. This copy didn't have a dust jacket, but I seized the chance to acquire it, partly because the title intrigued me, and partly because I'm always fascinated by the "singleton" detective story - I can never help wondering why an author, having managed to publish one novel, never returned to the fray. It's a topic to which I devote a chapter in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

I began to read the book and was impressed by the first chapter, partly because of the lively narrative voice. The story is told by Gerda, a young woman of German heritage, who lives in Scotland, and who has been looked after by her Uncle Angus. But now Angus is dead, and a kindly lawyer breaks the news that his estate is worth very little. But Angus has left a mysterious letter to Gerda...

I have a weakness for inheritance stories, but it soon became clear that this book isn't exactly an inheritance story, and it's not a Golden Age whodunit. Rather, it's an adventure story about a hunt for lost treasure. Gerda enlists the help of two young men as she embarks on an audacious plan to retrieve the treasure, but she soon finds herself in danger, since someone else is also pursuing the same objective. Much of the story is set in the Swiss Alps, and the setting, and the ski-ing which plays an important part in the action is well described.

I discovered that Lucius Books of York are selling a copy with an excellent dust jacket, and with their assistance I was able to look at the jacket blurb, from which I learned that the mysterious author was herself a ski-ing expert. But why didn't Hetty write any more crime fiction? She certainly could write, that's for sure. The style is light and entertaining, even if the plot is pretty basic. If anyone can offer a solution to the puzzle, I'd be delighted.