Monday, 11 December 2017

Reading Reviews

Image result for the story of classic crime in 100 books

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, 8 December 2017

Forgotten Book - The File on Lester

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Night Has Eyes - 1942 film review

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 December 2017

Books for Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 December 2017

Forgotten Book - The House of Dr Edwardes

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

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

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

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