Getting Away with Murder


Pearl Anniversaries Are A Nuisance

I received a salutary reminder that I have been involved in crime writing for thirty years when I discovered this press release in a Cambridge archive.

It announces the shortlist for the first annual dagger awards I attended as a member of the Crime Writers’ Association in 1988. Naturally, as an unknown non-entity (I am now a known unknown) I was not on it, but the names listed bring back fond memories. Of the short-listed authors, I subsequently got to meet Sara Paretsky – and become a member of Sisters in Crime – and not only met, but became good friends with Robert Barnard, Tim Binyon, Reginald Hill and Michael Dibdin (none of whom are still with us) and Janet Neel, now Baroness Cohen of Pimlico, who won the John Creasey Award. All in all, a very impressive short list.

Even among the judges, I got to know (and be generously reviewed by) John Coleman, fellow East Anglian Matthew Coadey (sic) and F.E. ‘Bill’ Pardoe, whom I eventually replaced as reviewer for the Birmingham Post.

Actually, my first novel, Just Another Angel, was published thirty years ago this month and launched on an unsuspecting world on the opening night of the famous Murder One bookshop, then on Denmark Street. It therefore seems the ideal time to announce that my latest novel will cash-in mercilessly on my pearl anniversary.

Mr Campion’s War will be published by Severn House on 31st August and is my fifth ‘continuation’ novel to feature Margery Allingham’s famous detective in his golden years. In fact much of the book is a flashback to Albert Campion’s exploits working for British Intelligence during WWII and I suppose is my first full-length attempt at a spy story. I say that with some trepidation as the nub of the plot was given to me over lunch by none other than Len Deighton, who would undoubtedly have made a better job of it than I.

Whilst obviously proud that a new book (my 26th) will mark my thirtieth year in this murky business, I am still at a loss as to what the appropriate commemorative present might be for a pearl anniversary. Diamond tie-pins are popular, so I am told, as are gold rings and silver brooches, but what goes with pearl? I am advised that I should on no account Google the word ‘necklace’ in this context, though I have no idea why.

They Don’t Write ’Em Like That Anymore

Although I don’t think I have actually said it, I am often quoted as saying ‘They don’t write thrillers like they used to.’ Well of course they don’t and in many ways that’s a very good thing, but I’ve just read one which certainly reminds me of the heyday of the British adventure thriller back in the 1960s. (As chronicled in that admirable textbook Kiss Kiss Bang Bang published last year.)

The Break Line, by journalist and documentary film-maker James Brabazon and published by Penguin/Michael Joseph, certainly celebrates many of the tropes of those vintage action-packed thrillers (being written by a journalist is one of them) and although the hardware and weaponry has been updated, and in great detail, we have a cynical tough-guy hero (an Anglo-Irish army-trained assassin), an exotic location – the jungles of Sierra Leone – a mad scientist concocting a world-threatening plague (of sorts) aided by a touch of voodoo and, of course, treachery in high places.

The action is pretty much not stop and the hero, Max McLean is put through hell, shot, drugged, tortured (in a particularly eye-watering scene), trapped underground and chased by ‘Sleepers’ – a fearsome enemy who do everything but sleep (unless shot in the head) and the body count is huge. There is even a violent finale at the famous Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street in London’s Fitzrovia, and goodness knows we’ve all had one of those.

Given the rather fantastical developments of the plot The Break Line reminds me of the work of John Blackburn (1923-1993) who was the master of genuinely spooky thrillers combining thriller elements with espionage, threads of science fiction and, as in one of his most famous titles, blood-curdling Gothic horror.

John Blackburn’s thrillers are sadly little remembered these days, although Valancourt Books ( of Richmond, Virginia have done an absolutely first-rate job of keeping many of his titles in print.

James Brabazon has probably never heard of John Blackburn – he wasn’t born when Blackburn was turning out his best work – so he will just have to take it from me that on the strength of this debut novel, he is worthy of following in Blackburn’s bloody footprints.

And if you thought they didn’t write World War II escape stories like they used to, well they do.

In my youth, the paperbacks which sold in huge quantities were often non-fiction rather than fiction and drew on true stories from the war, invariably featuring plucky British soldiers or airmen often escaping from prisoner-of-war camps. The Colditz Story, The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape were titles well-known to every schoolboy, as were the films made from them and anyone unfamiliar with those films will miss many of the jokes in Ardman’s Wallace and Gromit adventures.

Now The Hidden Army by Matt Richards and Matthew Langthorne, published by John Blake, tells the story of a plan thought up by Airey Neave of MI9 to hide ‘downed’ or escaped airmen (British and American) in a forest camp south of Paris – next to a German ammunition dump – until the liberating Allied armies could reach them after D-Day. It’s a fascinating story and a fitting one to be told in the centenary year of the RAF, although it does not underplay the fantastic bravery of the French and Belgian resistance fighters and civilians who helped in the plan.

In a way it is also a tribute to Airey Neave, one of the few men to escape from Colditz, who became an MP and was assassinated by a car bomb planted by the Irish National Liberation Army in 1979 as he drove out of the House of Commons underground car park.



From the days when they really did write them like that, courtesy of Top Notch Thrillers, come this month’s most notable revivals.

Published within three months of the death of Ian Fleming in 1964, The Man Who Sold Death introduced as hero John Craig, an immediate candidate as a replacement for James Bond. Whether his creator, James Munro, ever thought that is not known, but this book and three further ones were successful, particularly in America. Under his real name James Mitchell abandoned Craig for a new creation in many ways the antidote to James Bond but almost as iconic: David Callan, the hero of the legendary television series, several novels and numerous short stories.

Craig, like Callan, fought his way up from the ranks, ending WWII as a decorated naval officer who then went into the shipping business, making a fortune by ‘shipping’ arms and ammunition around the hotspots of the Mediterranean, plenty of shady friends and even more dangerous enemies who eventually take their revenge on Craig and his fellow smugglers. To survive, Craig calls on a previously acquired skill set (crack pistol shot, judo black belt) and takes the war to his enemies with the help of the highly secret Department K who were looking for a new assassin and Craig seems to fit the bill.

Less well-known in British thriller history is the mononymous private detective Raven, as created by James Quartermain in The Diamond Hook in 1970, a thriller which takes a long and very hard look at the effect of the heroin trade as it blighted the twilight of the Swinging Sixties. The novel starts in Swinging London, with a key scene in a disco called Voices Off where the ear-splitting soundtrack is provided by a modern beat combo called The Doors.

Things turn very dark as Raven is force-fed (injected) heroin until he is an addict (shades of the film French Connection II to come in 1975), but even thus handicapped he pursues the villains to the Dordogne and an explosive (literally) climax.

If Raven and James Quartermain have slipped from memory, the man behind the pen-name, James Broom-Lynne (1916-1995) certainly left his mark on thriller fiction of the Sixties in his successful ‘other’ career as an artist and illustrator. He was the man responsible for many a successful dust-jacket, including designs for Dick Francis’ racing thrillers and Adam Diment’s The Dolly Dolly Spy.

For further information on Top Notch Thrillers, consult:

 Berlin Games         






Can there be a more popular city setting for a spy thriller than Berlin? Even when the name of the city does not appear in the title - The Quiller Memorandum was originally The Berlin Memorandum and the Little Bear of David Brierley’s superb post-war thriller is Berlin (the Big Bear is Stalin) - there is no doubt that Berlin is the star.

Now dedicated fans of the spy story and the city are unleashing their combined enthusiasms to produce a podcast in the always entertaining Spybrary series  from Berlin itself ( using as an excuse, not that one is needed, a celebration of Len Deighton’s 1983 novel Berlin Game, the first book in his epic triple trilogy featuring Bernard Samson.


The Berlin podcast, available later this month, will be recorded in many of the locations used in the book, with Shane Whaley (the Mr Big of Spybrary) and Rob Mallows (the Red Grant who guards the wonderful Deighton Dossier website) and, fittingly, the starting point for their expedition will be Checkpoint Charlie.

Things have, of course, changed since the heyday of Checkpoint Charlie’s Cold War notoriety and one has to wonder what Bernard Samson, Harry Palmer, Alec Leamas, Colonel Stok, Quiller, Johnnie Vulkan and a host of others would have made of the rather prominent McDonalds now entrenched nearby.

It is not that Berlin needs a boost to its image when it comes to thriller settings. It seems to be doing very well currently, as can be seen in Jack Grimwood’s Nightfall Berlin now out from Michael Joseph/Penguin, which revisits the Cold War days of 1986, and in Michael Russell’s The City of Lies, which recently appeared in paperback from Constable and which begins in Dublin in 1940 but rapidly moves to…you know where.








More Farewells

It has been a grim year for losing, or remembering, friends and colleagues and last month I was saddened to hear of the death of crime-writer and reviewer Jessica Mann at the age of 80 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Since 2005 she had reviewed crime fiction for the Literary Review.

I first met Jessica in 1989 when she had just been replaced as the crime reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph. It was a frosty first meeting, as I was the person who had replaced her – and the petite Jessica could be very frosty when the need arose. This did not stop us becoming friends. Jessica wrote kind reviews about my books and I had the pleasure of getting one of her titles, Funeral Sites, back into print as a Top Notch Thriller. When I too had the honour to be awarded a Senior Citizen Railcard, Jessica and I pretended they were security passes in order to gain access to numerous publishing parties, to the total befuddlement of terribly young publicity assistants.

I also discover that another noted reviewer of crime fiction, Anthony Lejeune, died aged 89 in March. Anthony, possibly best known for his books on London’s gentlemen’s clubs, reviewed crime novels for several newspapers, but notably the Catholic weekly The Tablet for an impressive 50 (yes, fifty) year stint. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he tried his hand at thriller writing with novels featuring Adam Gifford, a crime reporter who often found himself working with the British security services.

And discovery of an old photograph reminds me that I failed to record the death of Marian Babson, aged 88, back in December – my pathetic excuse being that I was recovering from surgery at the time.

Marian, whose real name was Ruth Stenstreem, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, but made London her home for many years, where we shared a publisher and an editor. We appeared on several panels together at various conventions where I always took great pleasure in introducing her as the last surviving Salem witch (cue Marian threatening to strangle me or, on one occasion, pouring a glass of water over my head).

The photograph I rescued from a dusty filing cabinet was taken at one of the infamous ‘Shots’ conventions in Nottingham probably around 1994. Marian had persuaded me, as I worked in the brewing industry, to lead a post prandial expedition to Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, one of the oldest pubs in the country. Marian is pictured second from the right, next to fellow crime writer Christine Green, and American reviewer Eva Schegulla is on my immediate left, but I’m afraid my failing memory cannot identify the other two ladies in the picture.

This Month’s Appeal

Thriller-writers Alistair MacLean and Alan Williams both thought very highly of the novels of Winston Graham (1908-2003), but his novels of crime and suspense rather than his historical blockbusters in the Poldark saga.

Perhaps his best known thriller was Marnie, which was filmed by Hitchcock, but he also had the distinction of winning the first-ever award given by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1955 for The Little Walls. Graham also, by his own admission, wrote only two spy stories, one of them being Night Journey in 1941, which I’ve just read, and it is very good indeed – perhaps not Ambler standard, but really quite close.

This month’s appeal, therefore, is for someone to tell me what Winston Graham’s other spy story was. Answers using the usual Shots ‘Contact’ dead-letter box.


News In Brief

First the bad news, for me, is that I will be unable to attend the launch party for Felix Francis’ latest horse racing bestseller Crisis, which is published by Simon & Schuster in September.

Only a previously convened family business meeting in Sicily prevents me from attending the annual Francis launch party, which has been a highlight of the London social scene since the parties were hosted by Felix’s father Dick over twenty-five years ago, and this will be the first one I have missed.

I reported last month on Paul Doherty’s new historical thriller set during the Wars of the Roses, Dark Queen Rising. I hope I did not give the impression that Paul was abandoning his well-established medieval series heroes Brother Athelstan and Hugh Corbett. I can reassure fans that another Brother Athelstan adventure, The Godless is completed and on its way and Paul is now working on a new Hugh Corbett mystery.

Devotees of the Rebus/Rankin axis of ‘Tartan Noir’ can look forward to October and the 22nd Ian Rankin novel to feature his seemingly indestructible policeman John Rebus, when In A House of Lies is published by Orion.

Out now, from Faber, although first published four years ago in the US, is what I suspect someone looking for a convenient tag-line will call ‘Hassidic Noir’. Invisible City by journalist Julia Dahl is a powerful debut in which a fresh-faced young journalist attempts to make a name for herself investigating a highly suspicious death in the cloistered and highly secretive Hassidic community in New York. For a debut novel it is extremely well-written, with an impressively brave heroine and goes where, in my experience, few crime novels have gone.

Described as ‘the greatest novel ever written about surfing’ and certainly one of the cult crime novels and the inspiration for the cult film Point Break, a new edition of Kem Nunn’s 1984 ‘Surf Noir’ novel Tapping The Source is published by No Exit Press this month. If you missed it first time round, this is surely the book to take on a beach holiday. 

Turns Out I Was Right

(This could become a regular feature.)

I predicted that I would enjoy The White Devil by Domenic Stansberry, now published here by Weidenfeld, based on good reports from America, and I was not wrong. It is one of the classiest pieces of noir you’ll read this year, though very much Euro-noir rather than American-noir in flavour. It is atmospheric, deliberately ambiguous, vengeful, by turns sultry and icy in tone with a leading female character you want to trust but simply dare not.

(See author Domenic Stansberry’s blog tour on the Shots blog)


Showbiz Intelligence

I have long enthused over the Italian television crime saga Gomorrah, though I do not believe I have ever met anyone outside Italy who has seen it.

Being a dedicated fan, however, I have put my network of showbiz spies and informers to work with instructions to discover when a fourth series of this addictive drama will appear, if indeed a fourth series is possible after the violent conclusion to Series 3. (Spoiler alert: it is violent. Think Game of Thrones with automatic weapons.)

One of my spies has come up trumps (Note to self to stop using that expression) and reports that a fourth series is indeed in production and one of the overseas’ locations is, for the first time, London and the Hogwarts-like grandeur of the St Pancras Hotel.

The hotel and its famously flamboyant staircase have featured on film before, not the least in a music video for a chanteuse called Bee Yonce, of whom I have never heard.

My spies also report that there is now an American television series based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Get Shorty or rather, based on parts of it.

It should come as no surprise that such ‘re-makes’ are being… well… re-made. Many famous films such as The Magnificent Seven (why?), Ben Hur, True Grit (again, why?) and Leonard’s own 3.10 To Yuma have been re-made at great expense but often to little effect.

The television version of Get Shorty it seems, is trying to do something different with the core plot line (small time mobster becomes movie producer) and certainly takes an interesting tack when it comes to casting. Who would have thought of Irish comic actor Chris O’Dowd as a tough guy doing ‘wet work’ for a crime family? He’s actually rather good and comes across as far less of a hoodlum than the Hollywood types he comes into contact with, his lilting Irish brogue lulling his enemies and the viewers into a false sense of security. I have a sneaking feeling that the late Elmore Leonard would have approved.


Pip! Pip!

The Ripster



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