Getting Away with Murder

Reacher’s Wild West

Lee Child’s fictional hero Jack Reacher is a big man, who operates best on a big canvas and he seems to be getting taller and more imposing with each adventure. In his latest outing he is even described by the bad guys as ‘Bigfoot’ but don’t worry, they live to regret it.

In The Midnight Line, published by Bantam this month, Reacher bestrides the wide-open spaces of South Dakota and Wyoming like a classical Greek hero out for revenge or justice, whichever comes first.

But revenge or justice for what? Reacher himself doesn’t know at first, but when he spots a West Point class ring in a pawnshop way out west, he knows something is wrong as those rings, as ring often are, are very precious to those who have earned them. All ex-military policeman Reacher knows is that a fellow soldier must have been in trouble to have given up that ring and a fellow West Pointer in trouble might need a helping hand.

After his trademark demolition of a gang of thugs (seven of them this time) who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (i.e. near Jack Reacher) our nomadic avenger finds himself on the trail of a pernicious trade in stolen prescription medicines, which leads to the wide-open spaces of Wyoming (stunningly described) where you think you could see an enemy coming for miles. Reacher’s military training – he is of the generation who can still read a map, thank goodness – and some nifty detective work eventually uncover the sad, and rather moving, story behind the pawned ring.

This is a book which will satisfy Reacher fans and almost certainly top the bestseller charts, though some readers may not think of launderettes in the same way again. They can be very dangerous places, if you cross Jack Reacher.

In Memoriam

I am delighted to hear that the Inspector Morse Society has plans to commission a life-size statue of my old friend Colin Dexter, who died in March.

The Society has already established a Colin Dexter Memorial Fund, in which it is possible to buy shares, to cover the cost of the statute which will show Colin doing The Times crossword (something he was frighteningly good at). Designed by local sculptor Alex Wenham, the statue will be sited in Summertown, north Oxford, and unveiled in early 2019.

Domestic Bliss

My heart sinks these days when I am sent a book which has not one, but three, cover quotes mentioning “domestic noir”, but then my spirits soar when I see that the author of The Other Woman (Quercus) is Laura Wilson.

The main character in this domestic drama is Sophie, who lives an enviable life with a beautiful six-bedroom house in the Norfolk countryside, has a successful husband with a career in London, a twee and arty shop to keep her occupied when not on holiday abroad, three precocious children, a Labrador (naturally) and a flash Mercedes 4 x 4, plus cleaners and au pairs to take the strain. She is also the sort of woman who boasts of her comfortable lifestyle to people she only vaguely knows in that annual horror, the Christmas ‘family news round-up’ letter; a sort of aspirational death threat to those who haven’t made it.

Clearly, something awful has to happen to this woman and it duly does, the first link in the chain of catastrophe being when her ‘Christmas Letters’ start to be returned with anonymous messages scrawled on them telling her that her husband is having an affair and is about to leave her. Instead of confronting her perfect husband, Sophie broods on these messages between Christmases and is eventually spurred into being her own, totally inept, private eye.  Confusion, mayhem and murder gleefully follow.

In Laura Wilson’s more than capable hands, the well-paced plot turns very dark indeed and there’s a certain blackly comic relish in the scenes which deal with the perennial problem of getting rid of the body. And without giving anything away, there’s a clue in the very title, The Other Woman, and in the suggestive strapline sub-title She wants what you have.

Prolific

I knew that James Swallow, author of bestselling thrillers Nomad and Exile, had written quite few books, but was surprised to read, in the advance publicity for his new novel Ghost, to be published next year, that he has “over 750,000 books currently in print around the world”. Now that’s what I call prolific.

Deadlier Then the Male

Female thriller writers specialising in action/adventure/spy stories, as opposed to crime writers, have always been thin on the ground, so it is good to see a new novel featuring Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox from Zoe Sharp, Fox Hunter, from Pegasus Books.

I have not actually seen a copy myself but this, the twelfth novel to feature former special forces soldier turned bodyguard Charlie, has been described by one reviewer as ‘a helter-skelter, action-packed ride’.

I hear on one of my few still-functioning grapevines that Charlie Fox may have competition next year, when Bonnier Zaffre publish Killing It, a debut novel by Asia Mackay which appears (as things perversely do these days) first as an eBook in March and then as a paperback in June.  (No doubt a hardback will follow in 2019.)

Killing It is billed as ‘James Bond meets Nikita’ and features Lex Tyler, an elite-trained killer working for a covert department within British secret service, just as Quiller, Boysie Oakes, John Craig and many others – invariably males – did in the Sixties, the difference being that Lex is a new mother and motherhood provides considerable distractions for even the most dedicated professional assassin. 

This Month’s Appeal

Can you identify this man?

He is thought to be a thriller-writer of yesteryear and the only thing known about him is that he is NOT Francis Durbridge, the creator of Paul Temple and prolific television and radio scriptwriter, who died in 1998. Unfortunately, this picture appears on the BBC News website – and presumably has since 1998 – in Durbridge’s obituary titled Veteran BBC playwright dies.

Naturally this irritates Durbridge fans and his family and hopefully somebody in W1A will correct the mistake and we can then say: ‘So that’s all good then.’ But the mystery remains; who is the man whom the BBC thought was Francis Durbridge, who actually worked for the BBC on and off for 50 years?

There are no prizes, but if you know who our Mystery Man is, please tell me. I can be contacted by letter, telegram, telex or fax here at Ripster Hall, or using something called ‘Eee – mail’ (an early morning Yorkshire expletive) via shotseditor@yahoo.co.uk.

 All Our Yesterdays

At my great age it is far more comforting to look back into a rose-tinted past, than to contemplate a bleak and possibly brief future. I therefore have no qualms about boring my regular reader by reminiscing about which crime novels made it into my ‘Crime Guide’ column twenty years ago, on 1st November 1997, in that once-great newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.

I seemed to have enjoyed everything I was sent to review – there were some funny books (intentionally funny) and a fair amount of hard-boiled crime in there. I particularly liked Diamond Geezers, a debut novel by Greg Williams set in London’s gangland, though I cannot recall having seen or read anything by Greg Williams since.

I laughed out loud at Sparkle Hayter’s What’s A Girl Gotta Do? as I did at her subsequent novels which positively sparkled (sorry, couldn’t resist) with superior bitchiness. I did meet Sparkle, in 1999 I think, and found her a charming person and funnier than any Canadian has a right to be, but I have not been made aware of any new novels featuring her heroine Robin Hudson for over ten years now, which is a pity.  American author Jason Starr is now, of course, one of the leading lights in serious noir fiction, but back in 1997 he was making his debut with the impressively disturbing Cold Caller.

Another hardboiled chunk of noir, but this time British and featuring as hero a street-fighting anarchist, which I rated highly was The Riot Act by Jon Stock. After announcing his presence on the crime scene, Jon Stock seemed to disappear, only to re-emerge in 2009 as a leading light on the espionage fiction scene with Dead Spy Running and subsequent novels. Among other authors covered, I enjoyed two American authors very different in style: Lawrence Shames (Virgin Heat), one of the many chroniclers of criminal madness in Florida, and John Sandford (The Night Crew), who remains one of the most proficient producers of serial-killer thrillers.

Last, but certainly not least, I welcomed the debut novel of Paul Johnston (Body Politic), a wonderfully imagined satire ‘and good thriller to boot’ set in an independent Edinburgh city state some twenty years hence, which would make it right about now…

And just as you were dismissing futuristic nonsense about city states and an independent Scotland (oh yes, you were), news reaches me that the forthcoming novel by Malcolm ‘Glasgow trilogy’ Mackay is set in a ‘richly imagined’ independent kingdom of Scotland. With hints of alternative history, though happily Mackay’s reimagined Scotland still has room for private eyes, corrupt cops and organised crime, In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide will be published by Head of Zeus in April next year.

Spoiler Alert

Well, not so much a spoiler alert as a piece of hopefully useful advice. If you are contemplating reading John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies (Viking) – and I certainly recommend you do – then I would suggest that before you do, you read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and probably Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People as well.

I think it will be time well invested to get the most out of the new novel and if you haven’t ever read those classics of spy fiction before, ask yourself why not?

Lost Authors

With Christopher Fowler’s The Book of Forgotten Authors, now published by Riverrun, the arguments start at the Contents Page. Margery Allingham a forgotten author? John Dickson Carr? Richard Condon? Edmund Crispin? Surely, some mistake. And as to the question ‘how many people have actually read Edgar Wallace?’…well, the very cheek of it!

But then provoking indignation is the purpose of a book like this and the well-read Christopher Fowler doth provoke very well, and his motives are pure. If only one of the 99 ‘forgotten’ authors he lists is rediscovered by a new reader, then ‘you will have conferred upon them a kind of immortality.’

Fowler covers more than just mystery and crime writers and it must be a factor of my great age that I am shocked to find authors such as Pierre Boulle, Caryl Brahms, Peter Fleming, Sven Hassel, J.B. Morton and Simon Raven are now regarded as ‘forgotten’.

Whilst one can think of many thriller writers whose books have been forgotten disgracefully quickly after their death – Francis Clifford and P.M. Hubbard for instance (though neither make Fowler’s cut) – and more than one whose books perhaps ought to be forgotten, I cannot believe that certain of Christopher Fowler’s ‘victims’ can be justified to be classed as totally forgotten.

There are, I know, dedicated groups of fans, readers and editors, who strive to keep the memory of favourite authors alive: Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Leslie Charteris, R. Austin Freeman, Gladys Mitchell, Cornell Woolrich and Dennis Wheatley among them. And is it only me who still enjoys reading Joyce Porter, Pamela Branch, Kyril Bonfiglioli and Robert Van Gulik? I think that Christopher Fowler also does; that makes two of us.

The Book of Forgotten Authors is an erudite piece of literary journalism which will provoke and surprise in equal measure, though mostly provoke. In fact, it might just start a fist-fight between dedicated readers in a second-hand bookshop.









   The Chase is Still On            

I should have pointed out that my ‘discovery’ of James Hadley Chase’s excellent 1952 crime novel The Wary Transgressor, as reported last month, was originally published under the name Raymond Marshall.

‘Raymond Marshall’ along with ‘James Hadley Chase’, ‘René Raymond’ and ‘Ambrose Grant’, were all pen-names used by the prolific René Brabazon Raymond, who produced more than 90 novels and it is thought that around 50 of them were adapted for film or television. By the 1960s, the Chase name had become the dominant brand and was used for most of Raymond’s output when tasteful mass-market paperback editions of his backlist began to flood the book shops.

Thanks to my distinguished colleague, the leading Australian crime reviewer Jeff Popple, I have become aware that Chase was responsible for a short-lived series of four books starring secret agent Mark Girland in the mid-1960s, at the height of the spy thriller boom. I am currently seeking out the first in the series, This Is For Realpublished in 1965.

I feel guilty at having always dismissed the Chase canon without giving it a proper chance. i.e. reading it! I do not think, however, that I am alone in this. As my old and distinguished American chum, spy fiction expert Randall Masteller says: Chase was a writer that was never appreciated enough and probably cried all the way to the bank.

Thanks to his considerable sales in Europe, René Raymond lived for many years in the tax-advantageous climate of Switzerland, where he died in 1985. Whilst there, he became good friends with another ex-pat British writer, with whom he had shared a publisher, Graham Greene.

And speaking of Graham Greene, I have finally managed to track down his 1940 short story The Lieutenant Died Last in the collection The Last Word published shortly before the author’s death in 1991.                         

                                             

That story, which first appeared in Collier’s Magazine, formed the basis of the great morale-boosting wartime film Went the Day Well? The nub of the plot being the ‘invasion’ by Nazi paratroopers of a tiny English village (called Potter in the story, Bramley End in the film), an invasion which is thwarted by the plucky locals. (In the story the resistance is led by the local poacher but the film memorably has Dame Thora Hird potting Nazis with a rifle as if at a Fun Fair shooting gallery.)

Ironically, a digitally remastered DVD of the 1942 film was produced in 2011 (though it is often shown on television), but The Last Word has, I believe, been out of print since 1990. Which is a pity as the anthology also contains Murder for the Wrong Reason, Greene’s early attempt at a detective story, written in 1929. 

Christmas Comes Early

Having mentioned last month that it is my usual practice to take a break from crime fiction and thrillers over the Christmas holiday in favour of non-fiction, my festive wish-list is rapidly being filled by generous publishers.

Those generous folks at MacLehose Press have sent me their new paperback edition of Philip Ziegler’s Between the Wars 1919-1939, his collection of pithy and intelligent essays each one covering a year in those eventful decades, which I must admit I have already devoured. But then, who could resist a book which describes the fissiparous tendencies of the Spanish state in 1936 (from the Latin, meaning split)? Or uses adjectives such as lapidary to describe King George V’s comment to employers complaining about striking workers in 1926: ‘Try living on their wages before judging them’?  (Also used by John Le Carré in A Legacy of Spies to describe a stone-cold judgement passed by George Smiley.)

Splendid, sharp and clear, this is bite-size history at its finest, though disappointingly (for some) Ziegler does not cover the ‘Golden Age’ of crime fiction. Perhaps there were more important things going on.

And I do not have to wait until Christmas to read Rome: A History in Seven Sackings by Matthew Kneale, thanks to those wonderful people at Atlantic Books.  This is a sumptuously produced volume, which covers ‘sackings’ or occupations from Gauls and Goths to Normans, Germans, the French and the Nazis. (Though oddly the most notorious raid on Rome, by the Vandals [hence vandalism], gets a relatively brief mention.)

The author, who lives in Rome, is the son of Nigel Kneale, the creator of Quatermass and the Pit which had a generation of British television viewers watching from behind the sofa long before Dr Who, and the writer of the 1972 BBC classic ghost story The Stone Tape, still a superb chiller.

Ancient and Modern

Whilst on the topic of Imperial Rome, as I sort of was, I have to say I am extremely jealous of the lucky travellers who will be accompanying my old chum Lindsey Davies on an exclusive tour of Naples, Pompeii, Oplontis and Herculaneum in April next year, organised by Andante Travel.

As the author of the best-selling ‘Falco’ and ‘Flavia Alba’ series set in Ancient Rome, I cannot think of a better tour guide and I suspect many of those going on the five-day trip will be clutching the new Flavia Alba novel, Pandora’s Boy, which will be published by Hodder with great timing, in April.

For history buffs who are also crime fiction fans and who can’t wait that long for a fix of Roman intrigue, I would heartily recommend The Price of Freedom by Rosemary Rowe, just published by Severn House.

Set in what the author herself describes as the ‘tumultuous year’ of AD 193 (though what year in that period wasn’t?) in that far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire – Britain – specifically Colonia Nerva Glevensium, or Gloucester, where today there are the remains of some spectacular Roman villas with impressive mosaic floors. Not surprising, given that Rowe’s hero Libertus is an expert mosaic and pavement-maker which gives him access to the rich and powerful. Libertus is also a pretty good investigator of crime, something which the rich and powerful take full advantage of. In The Price of Freedom Libertus is reluctantly co-opted on to the local town council and almost immediately finds himself investigating the apparent suicide of an official tax collector. It is important that he does, because any shortfall in Rome’s taxes are made up by the local council…

As usual, Rosemary Rowe paints a fully-textured picture of domestic life in Roman Britain and her likeable hero’s constant struggle to keep his head above the stormy political waters is the constant delight of this charming series.

Winter is Coming

Håkan Nesser, the award-winning Swedish crime writer, is one of the leading lights in Scandinavian crime fiction and his new novel The Darkest Day published by Mantle is set in a small Swedish town as winter closes in and Christmas approaches.

Now I have no idea – my knowledge of Old Norse being rather skimpy – if Håkan Nesser is a good name for a crime writer, but I am sure that his translator for his new book, Sarah Death, is tailor-made for a stellar career should she decide to enter the fray.

The Ghost(s) of Sherlock

We know that Sherlock Holmes had many fictional rivals almost from the day he first appeared in print. They have featured in numerous anthologies and between 1971 and 1973 there was the television series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes which featured a ton of stalwart British character actors including Derek Jacobi, Donald Pleasance, Peter Sallis, Michael Gough, Julian Glover and John Thaw in his pre-Morse days.

The Sherlock boom of the late 19th century also sparked a craze for stories of the supernatural and these are celebrated in Nick Rennison’s new anthology Supernatural Sherlocks.

Many of the stories here, written between 1980 and 1924, are by familiar names – Conan Doyle, of course, plus Rudyard Kipling and H.P. Lovecraft – but many were certainly new to me. Watch out for The Dead Hand jointly written by L.T. (Elizabeth) Meade and Dr Robert Eustace, who was to co-author The Documents in the Case with Dorothy L. Sayers in 1930. The story, says the editor, contains ‘one of the most outlandish methods of crime fiction of the period’ which may be so, but it’s a method which has since been out-done by Thomas Harris, and probably Carl Hiaasen.

When the lion feeds on leopard rock

Recently we’ve had memoirs from John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth and in May 2018 we can expect those of veteran adventure-thriller writer Wilbur Smith when On Leopard Rock is published by Bonnier Zaffre.

Four years ago, in the Daily Telegraph (I’m ashamed to say) feature writer Judith Woods launched a blistering and very personal attack on the (then) 79-year-old Smith, having admitted she had never read one of his books (“…writing bloodthirsty mucky books isn’t something I’d like any son of mine to aspire to”).

Judith Woods posed the question: Just who, exactly, reads Wilbur Smith novels with their rollicking formula of violent lust, lusty violence and gung-ho derring-do? Well the answer, Ms Woods, is millions and millions in just about every country in the world – and more will do so next Autumn when a new novel in his famous ‘Courtney’ series appears.

Jingle Bells

With less than sixty sleeps to go to Christmas, it is not surprising that anthologies of crime stories with a festive flavour are infiltrating the bookshops. From Profile Books, and edited by Cecily Gayford, comes Murder on Christmas Eve which at £7.99 offers excellent value as the roll call of authors included is really very impressive indeed.

The ‘modern school’ if I may call it that (and I can, as it’s my column) is represented by Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Lawrence Block, whilst more ‘vintage’ tastes will be well-satisfied by the inclusion of stories by John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham, G.K. Chesterton, Marjorie Bowen (No, me neither) and the wonderful Michael Innes. If this anthology does nothing more than bring the erudite Michael Innes to the attention of a new readership, then it will have served its purpose. He was a prolific, scholarly and very, very funny writer who is sadly slipping from memory. (Christopher Fowler, please note.)

The cover of Murder on Christmas Eve reminded me of a similar seasonal scene here at Ripster Hall, including the electrified ‘lantern fence’ designed to deter unwanted carol singers.

I wonder if any publisher considering a Christmas anthology for next year would be interested in using it as cover art? For a small fee, of course. 

Pip! Pip!

The Ripster

Read more articles by Mike Ripley



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