Getting Away with Murder

Clubland Heroes

The social event of September was the star-studded party held to celebrate the launch of Felix Francis’ new racing thriller Triple Crown from his new publisher, Simon & Schuster, at the Cavalry and Guards Club in London’s Piccadilly.

   Set mostly on the American horse-racing circuit, the plot of Triple Crown revolves around the attempt by the same horse to win three long-established races - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes – in the same season, a feat rarely done.  Naturally, this being a thriller from the Francis stable, there is skullduggery and corruption involved and the amount of drugs and performance-enhancing substances given to horses, if Felix’s research is accurate (and I have no reason to think it is not), is enough to blow the mind of a Russian athletics coach.

At one point I had to remind Felix that he really shouldn’t be wasting his valuable time trying to help Shots editor Mike Stotter with some of the long words in the book, but attending to his distinguished guests. Yet soon after I found myself distracted, trying to explain the concept of winning ‘by a head’ to a disbelieving audience of crime-writer Simon Brett and Crimefest organiser Myles Allfrey.

   One of the disadvantages, these days, of being only a ‘Country Member’ of a famous London club is that one is often behind with the latest news and gossip. It therefore came as something of a shock, on a recent visit to Gerry’s Club (the defibrillator always on hand should Soho’s heart stop beating) to learn that American crime writer, songster, satirist and would-be politician Kinky Friedman had been in the UK, playing to packed-houses, this summer. And to prove it, Michael Dillon, the guardian of Gerry’s, had a photograph showing him and the famous self-styled ‘Texas Jew-Boy’ together.

   Younger readers may well be forgiven (though not by me) for not knowing the name Kinky Friedman, but in the early 1990s his outrageous, and outrageously funny, New York set crime novels  featuring himself as a wise-cracking, cigar-smoking, cat-loving detective landed on an unsuspecting Britain. Kinky himself appeared at the legendary 1995 Boucheron convention held in Nottingham, where he treated a slightly bemused, mostly British audience to songs made famous by his country-and-western band The Texas Jewboys, rather than give a talk about crime-writing.

   I remember watching that performance, and observing the surprised faces of the audience as Kinky walked in with a guitar rather than a book, from the wings in the company of Sara Paretsky (who turned out to be a fan) and later managed to get Kinky to sign a book for me, The Kinky Friedman Crime Club, an anthology of three of his private eye novels.

   I still have it, with the cherished inscription ‘To Mike – from a Texas Jewboy to a bluff North Countryman – from Kinky’ and signed with a Star of David.


More Bloody Scots

Possibly the oddest thing about Graeme Macrae Burnet’s splendid novel His Bloody Project is that it has made it on to the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and yet did not even feature on the longlist for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger.

   Burnet’s novel was published in late 2015 in the Contraband imprint of small Glasgow publisher Saraband and purports to be an assemblage of documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, on trial for a bloody triple murder in Inverness in 1869. The central document in the novel (remember: novel) is an account written by Roderick himself in his cell and at no point does he deny committing the crime, though he does not necessarily tell all the truth.

  I am sure the nay-sayers will ask what the point is of reading a crime novel when the outcome – hanging – is unavoidable, just as the pedants complained about The Day of the Jackal back in 1971 because General De Gaulle was never actually assassinated and so we know the plot is not going to ‘work’.

   His Bloody Project is not a conventional crime novel, and certainly not a conventional ‘detective story’ or ‘mystery’, but it is a novel, albeit a tricksy one, about crime. It is also a very accomplished historical novel, describing in poignant detail the hardships of a tiny crofting community in the western Highlands and ruthlessly exposing the class divisions and social snobbery of the time (especially against Gaelic speakers), as well as attitudes to the law, the press, the strictness of the Scottish church and new-fangled theories of criminal psychology.

  At the heart of the trial section of the book is the Catch-22 conundrum that any sane person would naturally plead insanity in order to avoid the hangman and mention is made of the famous M’Naghten Rules of 1843. {I was first told about the M’Naghten Rules in a wine bar near Lincoln’s Inn by the divine Sarah Caudwell, who claimed a family connection, though I could never work out whether the connection was with M’Naghten or the judges trying his case, it being a very convivial wine bar. Daniel M’Naghten was the first person found not guilty of murder ‘by reason of insanity’ after his attempt to kill Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, although he did kill somebody else by mistake in the process. Cynics, of course, would invert the Catch-22 to say he must have been sane to want to shoot a politician.}

   There is much to admire in His Bloody Project not least the sheer quality of the writing and the richness of the historical detail, which begs the question as to why the book is not also in contention for the CWA’s Historical Dagger.

   On a plot point, however, I do have one qualm. The protagonist, Roderick Macrae, openly admits he did the triple murder though the identities of the actual victims are cunningly withheld for a while and are quite shocking when finally revealed. When the murders happen, they take place in a small, gloomy crofter’s cottage and whilst the carnage is happening, an old woman – one of the victims’ mother – is sitting in an armchair in the shadows. Although she is spared by the killer (Spoiler Alert: Roderick), she is not only never questioned as the only witness by the authorities investigating the murders but is never mentioned again in the book.

   Such loose plot ends might, of course, be part of the novel’s intellectual backbone and tricksiness and would not be expected in a more conventional crime novel. So is it a crime novel or a novel about crime or does it matter? It has received rave reviews from Jake Kerridge (Telegraph) and Barry Forshaw (Financial Times), which is good enough for me, and clearly the Booker judges have taken to it as I have, though as I am not considered competent to judge the Flower and Produce Show my opinion is of little worth.

   The experience of my belated discovery of one unknown Scottish crime writer published by a small Glasgow publisher has, however, prompted me to be more aware of new (to me) Scottish crime writers from unknown (to me) Glasgow publishers; so here’s another one.

   Alan Murray was born in Edinburgh but has live for many years in Japan, New Zealand and now Australia. His new novel, from Freight Books, is the World War II conspiracy thriller The Turncoat which is set around the German blitz on Clydebank, the industrial heart of Glasgow in 1941 and the investigation by Military Intelligence officers rooting out the Nazi sympathisers thought to be directing the aerial assault from the ground.

   If you know your WWII history, given the location and the year, you will not be surprised if Rudolf Hess puts in an appearance. And he does.


Saints & Sinners

I have admitted many times that for some reason Leslie Charteris’ stories of ‘The Saint’ completely passed me by in my youth, by which time Charteris had given up writing full-length novels and was producing collections of long short-stories and novellas. These stories were ideal for adaptation in a television series, which many were and for me, my introduction to Simon Templar was via Sir Roger Moore. I never became a member of The Saint Club, which was started in 1936 and still going [see ], though I am assured it has absolutely no connection to the gay nightclub of the same name which flourished in Manhattan in the 1980s.  I do know several people, however, both crime writers and civilians, who swear by the early ‘Saint’ books and even though I had the privilege of meeting Leslie Charteris shortly before his death in 1993, I never got around to reading one until two years ago when I was asked to write an Introduction to new editions here and in the USA of The Saint in Europe. Despite qualms about the overblown literary style and the political incorrectness of that 1954 collection, I rather enjoyed those stories and realised that Simon Templar formed the literary bridge between Buchan’s Sir Richard Hannay and Fleming’s James Bond.

I have now – finally – got around to reading a full-length Saint novel, The Saint Plays With Fire which was originally titled Prelude For War when first published in 1938.

   The original title and date are both significant for the novel is virtually a personal declaration of war by The Saint on fascism in the form of arms dealers working with a thinly-disguised  British Union of Fascists (‘British Nazis’) and Action Française (‘Sons of France’), and The Saint – and Charteris – leave no doubt where their sympathies lies.

   It is an enjoyable ripping yarn, starting with The Saint poking his nose in where it is not wanted at a mysterious fire at a country house. There are missing documents, an incriminating photograph, two murders, several car chases, a kidnapping or two, a brush with Chief Inspector Teal as usual, and a very impressive and totally mercenary femme fatale in the form of the aristocratic Lady Valerie Woodchester, who might not actually be the airhead she at first seems to be. There is also a supporting role for The Saint’s idiotic, often unintelligible side-kick Hoppy Uniatz and other ‘regulars’ from the early days.

   But – and the ‘but’ was inevitable – there are passages of narration which are hard to digest and they seem to get worse in the second half of the book; an indication perhaps that Charteris was happier in the shorter forms of fiction he was to adopt after 1947.

   Take for example, this rather superfluous paragraph which tells us that Mr Teal is chewing gum:

“He had got his spearmint nicely in into condition now – a plastic nugget, malleable and yet resistant, still flavorous, crisp without being crumbly, glutinous without adhesion, obedient to the capricious patterning of his mobile tongue working in conjunction with the clockwork reciprocation of his teeth, polymorphous, ductile.”

   None of which adds much, if anything, to the plot or the character of Chief Inspector Claude Eustace Teal.

   Or this passage, where The Saint suggests to Teal that another character, Fairweather, may be the guilty party:

“And a great grandiose galumptious grin spread itself like Elysian honey over Simon Templar’s eternal soul. The tables were turned completely. Fairweather was in the full centre of Teal’s attention now – not himself…The moment contained all the refined ingredients of immortality. It shone with an austere magnificence that eclipsed every other consideration with its epic splendour. The Saint lay back in a chair and gave himself up to the exquisite absorption of its ambrosial glory.”

   At times one feels as if Charteris was reading a Thesaurus in a hurricane or trying to out-do Michael Innes in full flight, though with Michael Innes there was usually a point, or at least a punch-line, to such verbosity.

   One final example, again from later on in the book, as we find The Saint tied up and seemingly at the mercy of the bad guys and with one bound is miraculously free:

“…as he stood still no one was paying much attention to him. But in that volcanic immobility his arms hardened like iron columns, strained across the fulcrum of his back like twisted bars of tempered steel. The muscles writhed and swelled over his back and shoulders, leapt up in knotted strands like leathery hawsers from his shoulders down to his raw and bleeding wrists; a convulsion of superhuman power swept over his torso like the shock of an earthquake. And the ropes that held his hands together, weakened by the loss of the few strands that he had been able to rub away in the few minutes that had been given him, were not strong enough to stand against it. There was a snap as the fibres parted; and his arms sprang apart with the jerk of unleashed tension, He was free.”

   All this happens so quickly that the guard – standing next to Templar – doesn’t even have time to draw his gun, which probably proves that in 1938 not even the fascists could get decent staff.

   I did, however, enjoy the description of a hotel commissionaire resuming “his thaumaturgical production of taxis.”

   Now that’s one I shall keep in mind for the next time I stay at The Savoy. 


Chilling Stuff

Macmillan, a publishing house famed for championing some of the most respected names in British crime fiction (Colin Dexter, H.R.F. Keating, Peter James, P.M. Hubbard and many more) seems to have acquired a taste for the spooky.


   Out this month, and chilling in more ways than one, is The Ice Lands, written, naturally enough by an Icelander, a well-known poet there, Steiner Bragi. This is no ordinary piece of Nordic Noir (as it will probably be classed) as four thirtysomething city types head off into the wild hinterland of financial crisis-hit Iceland, presumably to discover something about themselves (shades of Deliverance perhaps). Of course they discover something pretty horrible in the icy fog which descends and forces them to take shelter in an isolated farmhouse and for a while the reader is convinced they are in Pincher Martin territory. At one point I felt myself longing for a map of Iceland so I could identify the terrain being described but I thought no, why bother; I’d be far too scared to ever go there.

   In January, Macmillan publishes the supernatural thriller Under a Watchful Eye by horror writer Adam Nevill and though the setting seems initially familiar and cosy – the coast of Devon – the story certainly doesn’t stay cosy for long.

  To be honest, the novel I am really looking forward to from Macmillan in January is The Death of Kings, which will be the new novel (set in 1949 I believe) to feature police detective John Madden as created by South African journalist Rennie Airth, who will then be entering his 82nd year.

   I have been a fan of the John Madden books since his spectacular debut in River of Darkness in 1999, the hunt for a serial-killer in 1920s rural England before anyone had thought up the term ‘serial killer’. Many thought it was Airth’s fictional debut, but he had tried his hand at a couple of thrillers before then, Snatch! – a comic crime story of a kidnapping gone wrong in Italy – in 1968 and Once A Spy in 1981. After a gap of 18 years, he gave us Inspector John Madden and now, 18 more years on, we will have his fifth adventure.





A Pendulum Due

I know I will be showing my great age when I say that Adam Hamdy’s forthcoming thriller Pendulum, coming from Headline in November, reminds me of an early Robert Ludlum. It begins with unsuspecting photographer John Wallace held captive, bound and with a noose around his neck at the mercy of a crazed killer who brings along his own music soundtrack (‘Air’ by Rogue; ‘Polarized’ by Seven Lions – anyone?) to hang his victim to. Oh, and the killer has his own ‘superhero’ uniform.

   Thanks to a happy structural fault, our hero gets free, falls from a high window and limps away into Maida Vale where he catches a double-decker bus in a scene which may be an homage to the film of The Ipcress File. From there the action moves to Paris and then New York where Wallace teams up with a rogue FBI agent and a conspiracy is revealed which is nothing less than the total destruction of FaceTube, YouBook and  all those forms of ‘social media’ which seem so popular among the young people these days.

   At this point, all my sympathies switched to the bad guy determined to teach interweb ‘trolls’ (as I believe they are called) a lesson.


The Stories Behind The Stories

There are remarkably few good biographies or autobiographies of thriller writers, unlike crime writers if I may be allowed to make the distinction (of course I’m allowed; it’s my bloody column). Agatha Christie is certainly well covered and there is a very decent biography of Dorothy L. Sayers by the late Barbara Reynolds and an excellent one of Margery Allingham by Julia Jones.

   On the thriller front, Ian Fleming was well served by Andrew Lycett (though there have been many more ‘biographies’ of James Bond than his creator); Geoffrey Household wrote a quite brilliant memoir Against the Wind in 1958 and one wishes he’d done a second volume in the thirty more years before his death; and Eric Ambler wrote the mischievous (the clue is in the title) Here Lies Eric Ambler in 1985.

   But last year we were treated to a memoir by Frederick Forsyth, The Outsider, and a superb biography John Le Carré by Adam Sisman.


   And now, in from the cold cliffs of Cornwall (or should that be Cornwell?) comes the inside story from the old spymaster himself, The Pigeon Tunnel, published by Viking and sub-titled by John Le Carré ‘Stories from My Life’.

   Some of the ‘stories’ have appeared elsewhere and will be well-known to Le Carré fans, although anyone wanting to know about the author’s life will surely have read The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, A Small Town in Germany and the brilliant A Perfect Spy all of which contained strong autobiographical themes.

   That is not to take anything at all away from The Pigeon Tunnel which is exquisitely written, poignant, forensically well-observed and in parts genuinely exciting, as when Le Carré relates his meetings – or trying to get meetings – with Yasser Arafat and a new generation of Russian gangsters who make the old KGB look like social workers.

   It is only to be expected that a fair number of famous names are dropped along the way but never (unlike this column) capriciously. Film directors Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson are in there, as is Alec Guinness of course. So too is Reginald Bosanquet in a short but important cameo which Le Carré introduces with ‘You have to be closer to my age, I suppose, to remember Reginald Bosanquet…’

   Sadly I am, John, and I do, but thanks for all the memories.


Hot Off The Presses

The always innovative Maclehose Press, who will always be remembered for unleashing girls with dragon tattoos on an English-speaking world, is this month publishing Shadows and Sun, the new crime novel by Dominque Sylvain alongside a mass market paperback of her Dirty War.


   Each of these thrillers are billed as ‘A Lola and Ingrid Investigation’ which might make them sound like cosy American mysteries, perhaps featuring a pair of professional quilters investigating something nasty in the Cabot Cove woodshed, but they are certainly not that. This investigative duo, an odd couple to be sure, are Lola Jost, a retired French police commissioner, and Ingrid Diesel, an American masseuse (and former Las Vegas showgirl).  Their amateur investigations are far from cosy, taking them into the world of arms dealing, defence contract scandals and very savage murders.

   Dominique Sylvain is a French journalist who turned to crime writing over twenty years ago and has, over that period, completely re-written two of her earlier novels which is something to be admired – and feared – by many a crime writer, this one included.

   I have to say I was somewhat confused by the Prologue to Dirty Story which includes as a subtext the ancient Babylonian myth made famous by Somerset Maugham as the ‘Appointment in Samarra’ story, where a man meets the figure of Death in a Baghdad market place. In Dominique Sylvain’s version, the figure of Death is clearly a female and I have absolutely no problem with that, but the famous plot-twist and punchline to this perfect short story here is that Death has an appointment that night in Samarkand, rather than Samarra. As all my readers will know, Samarra is in modern-day Iraq whilst Samarkand is in Uzbekistan. Am I missing something significant here? It wouldn’t be the first time, though it is unlikely to keep any other reader of Sylvain’s neatly noirish thrillers awake at night.


The charming and erudite Linwood Barclay has a new novel out from Orion, The Twenty Three, which is the third part of the ‘Promise Falls’ trilogy, a trilogy which I am ashamed to say has passed me by. The town of Promise Falls, the setting for Broken Promise and Far From True, seems a pretty dangerous place to live or rather die, as the inhabitants seem to be dropping like flies from a mysterious illness in the opening of The Twenty Three.

   It proves to be another problem to add to the case load of Detective Barry Duckworth and I wondered if Linwood had ever considered sending his fictional hero over to England to team up with Inspector Lewis of the Oxford constabulary. The methods Duckworth and Lewis used to fight crimewould surely be of interest to the die-hard cricket fan if no-one else, but I will not suggest this to Linwood. He knows what he’s doing.


It is a staggering 52 years since the historical adventure thriller When The Lion Feeds launched the career of Wilbur Smith. In theory, a red-in-tooth-and-claw African family saga set in the 19th century had more in common with the novels of Rider Haggard and the 1880s than in a 1964 when paperback sales were dominated by Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean, Len Deighton, Gavin Lyall et al.

After a couple of James Patterson-style franchise experiments with co-writers, Wilbur Smith is now back on his happy hunting ground of Ancient Egypt with Pharaoh, now out from Harper Collins and his many fans in many countries (on a recent visit to Italy, having been identified as a writer of sorts, the one question I was repeatedly asked was did I know Wilbur Smith?) will be delighted to hear that another chapter in his famous Courtney family saga, War Cry, is expected in March next year.


If your taste runs to contemporary crime fiction set in exotic places, then you could do much worse than sample The Bone Ritual by Julian Lees, published this month by Constable.

   The setting is Jakarta, which is still called Batavia in my School Atlas, and stars Inspektur (the Indonesian spelling) Ruud Pujasumarta in the first of what looks as if it could be an interesting series.


Coming To A Bookshop Near You

I have not seen Mark Mills for several years, although he is the author of historical thrillers such as The Information Officer (2009) and House of the Hanged (2011) which I greatly admired and quite confidently rank him alongside Alan Furst, Philip Kerr and John Lawton when it comes to writing about Europe on the eve of, or during, World War II.

   I was bemoaning the fact that for five years I had not read anything by Mark at a Shots Magazine Board Meeting (we all gather around the cheese board), when I was told in no uncertain terms that he had a new novel coming out in November – and also, in even stronger terms, that it was my round.

   I am afraid I know no more than that Mark’s new book, from Headline Review, is called Where Dead Men Meet, but I am looking forward to it.



I have been sorely tempted by rumours of Anthony Horowitz’s forthcoming Magpie Murders, published this month by Orion, in which – I am told – I may well recognise several characters. However, despite wheedling, begging, threatening letters and straightforward blackmail, I have been unable to catch even a glimpse of an advance proof copy.


Rescued From The Wild

I was delighted to receive this picture of an energetic young person who, having climbed to the summit of Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak, on a glorious English summer’s day, discovered a book there!

   Forensic examination of the picture seems to show that the book so bravely rescued from the wild was Lights, Camera, Angel! Unless my eyes deceive me, that is, which they often have before now.


And Finally

Dame Agatha Christie may have some of her most famous titles immortalised, very attractively, on postage stamps now…

…but it is always nice to see one’s name in lights in Piccadilly Circus.



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