Getting Away with Murder

Reports of my lunch have been much exaggerated

I am delighted that one publisher at least (Transworld) has taken recent reports of my demise with a pinch of salt and invited me to a splendid lunch for three of their leading authors.             

Naturally, Professor Barry Forshaw was there along with the great and good of the crime fiction reviewing world, to break bread with veteran bestseller Robert Goddard.

I had the pleasure of reading Robert’s latest novel, Panic Room, which is published by Bantam later this month. After his success with a trio of historical adventures, Robert returns to the contemporary thriller (perhaps even slightly futuristic) in Panic Room which has twin narrators/protagonists, one of them a spiky young woman with lots of attitude and the other, a down-trodden estate agent. Despite this seemingly unsympathetic pairing, Goddard makes the characters come alive, although they are far from likeable.

The plot revolves around a mysterious and impenetrable ‘panic room’ (or is it?) in a super-rich businessman’s Cornish house and the various attempts to find out what’s in it, or what’s likely to come out of it. The trail our reluctant heroes follow leads to Switzerland, via an old murder case in Cornwall, a vengeful Cornish witch (my favourite character), a high-flying female student missing for more than twenty years, assorted gangsters and hit-men, and an apocalyptic threat worthy of Michael Crichton or, dare one say it, Dan Brown.

Amazingly, Goddard holds this all together, his pacing and unfussy prose smoothing the way to the suspensions of disbelief required as the plot escalates.

One of Transworld’s rising stars, published in the Doubleday imprint, is Joseph Knox whose youthful enthusiasm and fresh-faced countenance belies his reputation as the author of some powerfully dark crime fiction and his reputation as being ‘the best-read crime writer ever’.

Although relatively new to the crime scene as a writer and somewhat dauntingly seated between myself and Karen Robinson of The Sunday Times, Joseph was present to celebrate the publication of his second novel The Smiling Man, which is published this week.

Following on from his much-praised debut Sirens, Knox continues the mis-adventures of night shift of ‘compromised’ police detective Aiden Waits as he stumbles through the grim and unforgiving Manchester underworld, ostensibly in search of the identity of an un-named, unclaimed body found in an empty hotel. In fact, Waits ends up searching for much more, including things about his own past which he perhaps should leave unfound.

From his over-bearing boss to his rather disgusting night shift partner, not to mention seedy bars and brothels, Waits has created his own purgatory out of a night-time Manchester which positively drips with crime and violence. This is not a cosy mystery in any sense and the D-I-Y enthusiast may wince at inventive uses of hammers and nail guns.

The third Transworld author, whom I was delighted to meet for the first time, was the vivacious, award-winning, Belinda Bauer.

Belinda’s new novel Snap appears from Bantam in May, so more of that anon, but a discussion point at this literary lunch was which very famous writer had used the same title for a 1974 crime novel? Belinda herself would have been far too young to be aware of such a novel at the time, and only a well-read crime writer like Joseph Knox would be likely to know the answer.


Kim Jong Choco Pie

Perhaps a touch of Ski Sunday diplomacy at the Winter Olympics might resolve the decades of mistrust and animosity between North and South Korea but in case it doesn’t, there’s a very timely thriller coming in May from Harvill Secker.

Star of the North by D.B. John, about whom I know very little except that he has lived in South Korea and visited the North, is billed as ‘the most explosive thriller of the year’. In the advance publicity, the author himself points out that given the current American president, ‘the world sometimes seems a mere tweet away from nuclear war’.

One strand of the plot of Star of the North, though probably not a vital one, involves the Choco Pie, an everyday snack in South Korea.

The publisher generously included an actual Choco Pie with advance proof copies. Never having seen this delicacy before, I felt I had to try it. My conclusion was that I realised what a gourmet treat Wagon Wheels are.

Still on things Korean and despite a New Year’s resolution to avoid any more crime novels which come blurbed with the exhortation “How far will you go…?”, I am tempted by The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong, to be published by Little Brown in May.

Although her crime novels have already been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and German, The Good Son is the first to appear in English, although she is already rated as South Korea’s leading thriller writer and her novels have been compared to American Psycho, Misery and A Clockwork Orange, so I suspect they are not for the faint-hearted.


Rolodex Days

I am used, for legal reasons, to missing out on many a sumptuous party thrown by London’s publishing houses and rarely complain or even mention the fact any more. However, I was looking forward (when I heard about it on the crime fiction grapevine) to the 2018 crime party thrown by Simon & Schuster, where I hoped to meet old friends and writers whose work I admire, including Rob Ryan, Kate Rhodes and Felix Francis, but sadly no invitation was forthcoming.

Some judicious enquiries revealed that I actually had been invited, back in December, by email – but to an email address which I have not used for nearly a year. This I found confusing as I regularly receive emails from editorial and publicity staff at Simon & Schuster, but then I discovered that the sending of invitations had been ‘contracted out’ as it were, to a firm called Gorkana. (Which I always thought was a successor to the OGPU or NKVD.)

Gorkana, it seems, is a company which supplies mailing and contacts’ lists for the PR industry – and there’s nothing wrong with that if the lists they supply are kept up to date. In my day – a phrase I have been struggling not to use for several years – publishers kept their own lists of useful contacts in Rolodex files on leather-topped desks which smelled faintly of stale tobacco and spilled red wine.

I was musing on this recently as I waded through snow drifts to the next village, Bramley End, where a Post Office still miraculously still survives for the purchase of premium bonds and postal orders, the sending of telegrams and, of course, the provision of stamps.

Now I realise I have been somewhat out of touch lately, but the latest issue of commemorative stamps came as something of a surprise.

Have I not been paying attention or have our Royal Family really changed that much?


Still Kiss-kissing, Bang-banging

One of the joys of having written Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, my ‘reader’s history’ of the boom in British thrillers when I was but a lad in short pants is that I keep discovering books and authors from the period I did not know, or fully appreciate, at the time. (I was very young…)

For example, I have recently ‘re-discovered’ (okay – I’d forgotten it) the 1970 thriller The Man Who Walked on Diamonds by James Quartermain.

Possibly the best-known of Quartermain’s thrillers involving the theft and smuggling of diamonds (there were four with ‘Diamond’ in the title), the book’s blurb is rather unsettling as highlights the predicament of hero Raven who finds himself looking down the barrel of a Luger held by six feet four of homosexual sadism…

That aside, I found it interesting that the book was dedicated to Venetia and Edward Woodward, then playing the iconic assassin/spy Callan in the hit TV series. This prompted me to find out more about author James Quartermain.

The pen-name Quartermain hid the identity of James Broom-Lynne (1916-1995) who turns out to have been a near-neighbour of mine, as a long-time resident of East Bergholt in Suffolk. Broom-Lynne was an author, artist, playwright and illustrator and apart from writing thrillers himself, he designed the jackets of the novels of some famous authors, including H.E.  Bates, Christianna Brand and Dick Francis.

Perhaps most interesting to fans of Great British thrillers of the 1960s is that James Broom-Lynne was responsible for the jackets of the first two novels by Adam Diment, The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967) and The Great Spy Race (1968).


Hopefully proving that I am not alone and slightly sad in my enthusiasm for classic British thrillers, there will be a special panel at Crimefest in Bristol in May (on Saturday the 19th to be precise) chaired by the erudite Jake Kerridge of the Daily Telegraph entitled Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Classic Thrillers, which says it all really. I will be participating, as will Lee Child, C.J. Carver and Zoë Sharp and afterwards I expect Bristol’s second-hand bookshops to do a roaring trade.


Thriller Island 

One of the best-loved thriller writers from the boom time of the Sixties and Seventies was Desmond Bagley (1923-83), who for many years made his home on the island of Guernsey.

Now Bagley’s legacy of exciting, globe-trotting thrillers will be celebrated at the Guernsey Literary Festival next month with an exhibition launched with a talk by dedicated fan Phil Eastwood who runs the excellent website


Society Update

For legal reasons I could not attend (yet again) the annual crime fiction party thrown by Penguin, nor the more recently established one by publisher Bonnier. I am sure both imprints took the opportunity to tell their favoured guests about their crime fiction plans for the coming year. I have, of course, no idea what those are.

New Noirs

There seems no end to the application of noir to just about anything to describe (or invent) a new sub-genre of crime fiction. We’ve had Tartan Noir, Irish Noir, Ozark Noir (!), Nordic Noir, Scandi Noir, Euro Noir and the currently all-pervasive Domestic Noir.

But now I’ve come across a new designation – Narco-Lit – which refers to the murderous world of drugs, cartels, corruption and murder in Mexico. It even has a recognised founder in Elmer Mendoza, whose new novel Name of the Dog is out now from MacLehose Press.

Featuring Mendoza’s world-weary (who wouldn’t be?) Mexican homicide detective Edgar ‘Lefty’ Mendieta, Name of the Dog is a violent, staccato blast of a book which would fit anyone’s definition of ‘noir’ – even mine. It also includes some fascinating detail on Mexican food and drink, from Agua de Jamaica to Pibil.

Elmer Mendoza is known as ‘the Godfather of Narco-Lit’ and I think the title well-deserved. The designation ‘-Lit’ may also catch on in crime fiction, though I can’t think of any good examples at the moment, but it would be nice to see it used in a context other than ‘Chick-Lit’.

It will never replace the increasingly ubiquitous ‘noir’ though, if only thanks to the efforts of Barry Forshaw, who has another Pocket Essential guide coming out next month.

Historical Noir, I am told, covers crime fiction (plus television and film) set more than fifty years ago. I have to take issue with that definition, partly as it excludes my own ‘continuation’ novels featuring Margery Allingham’s famous detective Albert Campion which are set forty-nine years ago (which may be being picky, but I had to get the plug in), but more importantly, because I insist that any book set in a period when I was alive isn’t ‘history’.

Barry is the author of Brit Noir, Nordic Noir, American Noir and Euro Noir but claims that Historical Noir will be his last in his set of noirish encyclopaedias, which is a great pity as I was looking forward to Neeh-Noir: the role of the police siren in crime fiction. (With apologies to the person who came up with that joke. You know who you are.)


Registered Titles

February is a favourite month among crime writers, at least British ones, as that is when the marvellous Public Lending Right system reimburses authors for copies loaned in libraries rather than sold to the public. It is a time when meat goes back on the menu and the children get new shoes, but funds can only be allocated to authors who have registered the titles they have produced or contributed to.

Whilst casually checking my own bibliography on the jolly old interweb, a book appeared which I had not seen before.

Now although I have in the past worked with Maxim Jakubowski on the Fresh Blood anthologies, I cannot claim credit for any input into this one and yet I appear to be listed as a co-editor.


I can assure Maxim that I have not registered this title as part of my PLR claim and that although I did once pitch the idea of The Book of Erotic Mammoths, nothing ever came of it.


Not Strictly Nordic

Derek B. Miller is an American who lives in Oslo and has a third novel, American By Day, out from Doubleday next month, the title being a no doubt intentional play on that of his 2013 debut thriller, Norwegian By Night.

In the promotional material which accompanied proofs of his new book, the plaudits and awards for that first novel are proudly listed, particularly the winning of the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey New Blood Dagger – an award which should get an award for long-windedness.

Oddly, the one award not mentioned in the advance publicity was the Last Laugh Award for best comic crime novel, given to Norwegian By Night at the Crimefest convention.

I was there, in Bristol in 2014, on the night the announcement was made, and it came as something of a surprise to the better-read among the audience (and almost certainly the author!)  that Miller’s novel had been classed as a comedy. However, the fact that it won the Last Laugh, beating novels by those masters of murderous mirth Carl Hiaasen and Colin Bateman did raise many a chuckle and the odd guffaw.


Remembering Colin

Although it will be a tearful occasion, I will be honoured to be a guest at the memorial service for my old friend Colin Dexter, who died last year, to be held in Oxford next month.

In the meantime, the excellent new series of Endeavour is keeping the Morse/Dexter flame alive in more ways than one. The producers have, to their credit, continued the long-standing tradition of cameo appearances by the author in episodes of Inspector Morse. As the real Colin Dexter is sadly no longer available, images of him are being slipped in to each episode to surprise and delight those viewers quick enough to spot them. I have already noted a picture of Colin in a copy of a newspaper, featured on a poster in a railway station and in a portrait painting, in full dress uniform, in an army Officer’s Mess, but I am sure I must have missed some.

I have also discovered French editions of Colin’s Inspector Morse which have opted for a co-ordinated series of British ale brands as their cover art on the basis that Morse liked the odd pint of ale.


I have selected these two not necessarily because they are my favourite Morse stories (though one comes high on my list), but they are among my favourite ales.

I do have one important point of order to raise with the French publisher, however. The French edition of The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn does not actually show an ale.

Can anyone remember Morse ever drinking cider?


Get Carter (Brown, that is)

In his seminal work Bloody Murder, the critic and crime writer Julian Symons called them ‘the Big Producers’ – authors who wrote a great many books with interchangeable series heroes on a production-line basis resulting in ‘a ready-made product like cornflakes or puffed wheat’(sic). Symons is pretty disparaging about their output and contribution to the genre (negligible) but does admit that it was often a case of never mind the quality, feel the backlist.

Among these ‘Big Producers’ Symons lists James Hadley Chase, Peter Cheyney and John Creasey, but not, surprisingly, Carter Brown, an author said to be responsible for 322 novels, 12 long-running series and sales of over 100 million books.

There was probably a good reason, other than intellectual snobbery, why Symons refused to get this particular Carter whose prolific output covered the three decades up to 1980. His books were, to put it politely, disposable; the pulpiest of pulp fiction with lurid covers and titles such as Booty for a Babe and The Bump and Grind Murders to match, although superior to the generic pulp output of ‘Hank Janson’. All went out of print, except in France (where they were very popular) more than thirty years ago although recently the innovative Stark House Press in America have republished six ‘Carter Browns’ in two compendium editions

Carter Brown was a pen-name – originally Peter Carter Brown – used by Alan Geoffrey Yates (1923-1985), who was born in London but moved to Australia in 1948. He became a public relations man for the airline Qantas and began writing pulp fiction in 1953.  Legend has it that he was contracted to write one short novel (around 44,000 words) and two full-length ones per month. Most were set in America, though he had published at least 30 titles before he visited the country.

Two of his most popular, and interchangeable, series were those featuring Rich Holman, the tough, unorthodox, streetwise Hollywood private eye (as in Nude – With A View) and those starring Lt Al Wheeler, the tough, unorthodox, streetwise Los Angeles policeman (as in The Blonde). He also produced series starring Mavis Seidlitz, the ‘torrid blonde private eye’, and Danny Boyd, ‘New York’s toughest private eye’.

Not only were the heroes/detectives interchangeable but often so were the crimes, with naked blondes being stabbed to death a common occurrence, and although readable enough (allowing for the political incorrectness of the period), they were never likely to trouble the reputations of Ross Macdonald or Ed McBain or a host of other superior craftsmen.

What was interesting, and probably a hangover from the ‘Hank Janson’ days of pulp publishing, was the fact that all the Carter Brown books (as far as I can tell), whoever the lead character, were marketed in the UK not designated by their particular hero (or heroine, but mostly hero), but were generically lumped together as The Carter Brown Mystery Series.  A case of the pen-name becoming the brand, with no further information required by the potential reader, or indeed offered by the publisher. Perhaps at one time, you really could judge a book by its cover.

Carter Brown is almost certainly better remembered in France than he is here or America, perhaps even in his adopted Australia. One of his books – and I would love to know which one – supposedly received an award in France for the most whiskies drunk in a single novel.



Wrap up warm!

The Beast from the East,

(aka The Ripster).

Read more articles by Mike Ripley

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