Getting Away with Murder

Dick Francis

I read my first Dick Francis thriller, Odds Against, in 1967. It was a Pan paperback edition which cost me 3/6d  (17½p to the youngsters). I still have it.

When my parents saw me engrossed in the book, they both, independently, said ‘Devon Loch’ when they spotted the name of the author. At the time, I, as an unworldly 14-year-old, had no idea what they were talking about. Neither of my parents read thrillers and neither were remotely interested in horse racing (the idea of going into a bookmakers’ would have given my mother the vapours) but both remembered the news coverage of Dick Francis, the Queen Mother’s jockey and his dramatic ride on Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National which ended so tragically within sight of the winning post.

Probably twenty-five years later, in my capacity as the crime fiction reviewer for the Daily Telegraph (a once-great newspaper which reviewed crime fiction) I was invited to the launch party of the newest Dick Francis novel at, I think, Claridge’s hotel. I was excited for two reasons: firstly, the annual Francis book launch was the fashionable party of the crime writing season, and, secondly, I had a bone to pick with the author.

At the time I had a proper job, working for The Brewers’ Society, the trade association for beer and pubs. Their offices were in a post-war building on Portman Square and the Society occupied the ground floor and also floors 1 and 4. Floors 2 and 3 were sub-let to The Jockey Club, although the two bodies rarely mixed. (I never got a decent tip on a horse from them, but then they never got any beer from me.)

In a recent novel, Dick Francis had his hero burgle The Jockey Club at night in search of a vital clue, by forcing entry via the roof. Dick had not realised that the brewers had offices on the floor above the jockeys and his hero had actually broken in to an archive which contained beer bottle labels going back to the 1850s.

Getting Dick alone, I introduced myself and immediately pointed out his (understandable if you didn’t work there) mistake in the geography of 42 Portman Square. He listened politely, admitted his oversight, then smiled and put an arm around me and said “Come and have a glass of champagne and don’t tell anyone else”. From then on, I was invited to every Francis launch party until Dick’s passing, at which point his son, and co-author, Felix continued the tradition.

I last talked with Dick at the launch of Silks in 2008, where he signed a copy of his book for me and, once again, pressed a glass of champagne on me.

Sadly, due to Covid restrictions, for the first time since 1964, there was no Francis launch party in September and publication of Felix’s new novel Iced has been rescheduled for 2021. It is particularly disappointing as this year would have been the centenary of Dick’s birth and a double cause for celebration, but the occasion will be marked with a rather more permanent memorial.

Plans are afoot to erect a bronze statue of Dick Francis at Aintree Racecourse – Dick was involved in saving the racecourse and the Grand National long after his days as a jockey – and the statue will be part funded by public subscription. Members of the public (readers as well as racing fans) can contribute via

Conventional? Moi?

I recently received a copy of the very attractive literary quarterly NB sub-titled The Crime Issue, which included a feature on ‘Europe’s most popular crime festival’ CrimeFest and an interview with the hosting organisers, Donna Moore and Adrian Muller.

In this Plague Year, the Bristol-based CrimeFest had to be cancelled and the feature is a sad reminder of the good time which would have been had by all. I was cheered, however, by one portion of the interview when Adrian Muller was asked which book(s) had been getting him through ‘lockdown’ earlier in the year. He replied: Based on a Mike Ripley recommendation in his online Shots column, I just finished Philip Kerr’s Hitler’s Peace.

It’s good to see someone was paying attention and thinking about crime fiction conventions reminded me that it was twenty-five years almost to the day that one of the largest ones in the world came to England for the second (and so far, last) time.

Named in honour of Anthony Boucher (the pen-name of author and critic William Anthony Parker White, 1911-68), Bouchercon is the biggest annual gathering of mystery writers and readers in the world and is only rarely held outside the United States. In 1990 the convention was staged in London, bizarrely in a venue without a licensed bar, but despite that the UK was given a second chance in 1995 and following the success of the Shots conventions held there covering film and crime-writing, Nottingham was the chosen venue, with Colin Dexter, James Ellroy and Ruth Rendell as guests of honour, Reginald Hill as the toastmaster and Geoff Bradley, the editor of CADS Magazine, as the fan guest of honour.

As my birthday coincided with the event, I remember only some of it, mainly thanks to the generous good wishes of Colin Dexter, who actually shared the same birthday, and other good chums.

(This particular group of hooligans is actually one short, as James Ellroy, in one of his ‘militant sobriety’ moods made an excuse and left as soon as Colin Dexter insisted on buying a round.)

I do remember taking the ‘joke of the convention’ prize – a spurious award invented, I think, by Russell James and seconded by Nicholas Blincoe, but much of the 4-day event comprised a series of arduous panels being cross-examined by frighteningly well-informed readers.

My main appearance was on a panel of crime fiction reviewers, along with Harry Keating and Eva Schegulla from New York, but I also found myself – possibly as a last-minute replacement – chairing a panel entitled Too Cosy For Comfort featuring Marian Babson, Janet Laurence, Clare Curzon and Janie Bolitho. That event was memorable for the incident when Marian Babson, an old chumette, poured a glass of water over me – possibly to see if it burned – after I had mentioned the fact that she was born in Salem, Massachusetts, home of the famous witch trials. (True fact.)

Crime fiction conventions produce a host of memories some which, like the giant rat of Sumatra, the world is not yet ready for,  and for forging friendships. I am pretty sure that the Bouchercon in 1995 was the place I first met American Justin Scott and also the Queen of bestselling crime novels Martina Cole.

It was certainly the place where I found myself, more or less by accident,  having a drink with Professor David Canter, a pioneer of criminal psychological profiling. As I had not actually read his book Criminal Shadows, which had won the CWA Dagger for non-fiction,  and he had never heard of me, our conversation was polite, but rather general, until I suddenly thought of a question which the professor might appreciate. So who was it who came up with the term ‘Serial Killer’? I asked innocently. David Canter’s reply, without missing a beat, was: “Probably Thomas Harris”.

That I remember quite distinctly but it seems the last twenty-five years, like certain sections of that Bouchercon itself, have passed in a blur.

Late Discovery

I came rather late in the day to the stylish work of Peter Dickinson (1927-2015) when I discovered Some Deaths Before Dying  twenty years ago, which I believe was his last adult crime novel. By then he was probably better known as a multiple-award winning author of children’s and young adult fiction but his early forays into detective stories had also brought him awards and, so the legend goes, a certain amount of opprobrium.


Dickinson’s first two crime novels, The Glass-Sided Ants Nest (aka Skin Deep) and A Pride Of Heroes  had the distinction of winning the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger two years in succession, 1968 and 1969, making him the first author to do that. It was a remarkable achievement, especially for a first and a second novel and resulted – according to the gossip I heard in the late 1980s – in him being more or less shunned by the CWA, presumably for being greedy when it came to awards and rave reviews from Francis Iles (‘original’), Edmund Crispin (‘sophisticated’) and Anthony Price (‘elegance, whackiness and excitement’) to cite but three.

Peter Dickinson was no stranger to crime fiction, having reviewed it for many years for Punch magazine, where he was an assistant editor, and therefore also no stranger to humorous  writing, his own fiction often being compared to that of Michael Innes. As I consider myself a big fan of Michael Innes (I have more of his titles – 33 – than those of any other author), I felt it about time to go back and discover early Peter Dickinson and thanks to a friendly second-hand book dealer, I have begun with A Pride Of Heroes.

It is absolutely fabulous and I am kicking myself for not reading it before now. It is set over a single day in a stately home being turned into what we would now call a theme park, specialising in re-enactments of ‘Old England’ and wild animals, particularly lions, who are crucial to the plot as both weapons and as a means of disposing of bodies. Investigating a supposed suicide, Detective Superintendent Pibble uncovers possible murder by duelling pistol, as well as by lion, and a wonderful cast of eccentrics all described in majestic, flamboyant prose, as when one of the suspects settles down to a bottle of claret at dinner: It was a hulking, muscular wine, tasting of old cavalry boots, but Mr Singleton seemed determined to show it who was master.

If you are a fan of Michael Innes and haven’t tried Peter Dickinson, do not, for goodness’ sake, wait as long as I did.

Forthcoming Attractions

I have begun to receive catalogues for 2021, which proves I am not on the naughty step of all publishers, and a forthcoming non-fiction title from Bloomsbury caught my eye as in March, they are to publish a new biography of the talented Miss Patricia Highsmith. Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires by Richard Bradford is by no means the first biography of one of the greatest, and most influential, crime writers ever, and won’t have the last word on her and her career.

Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, much of Highsmith’s later life was spent in Europe and there is a small town in Suffolk where she is still fondly remembered in the local Co-Op.


I am thrilled at the rumour that No Exit are to publish (posthumously) William Hjortsberg’s  Angel’s Inferno, a long-awaited and unanticipated sequel to his very spooky Falling Angel from 1978, which was filmed as Angel Heart by Sir Alan Parker. I have to  assume this is a sequel as no-one has actually told me anything about it, but I have fond memories of hunting down the Mysterious Press edition of Falling Angel  in Murder One many years ago after an agent who was trying to recruit me as a client constantly referred to my fictional hero as ‘Harry Angel’.

As Falling Angel is a truly gothic mix of black magic and mystery set in New York, and my book the agent wanted to represent was anything but, it became clear to me that he had read neither.


Books of the Month

The current Covid situation may well have delayed or totally screwed up publishing schedules, but mid-September to the end of October always was going to be a crowded period as some of the biggest names in the business had new books out.

If they had been a 1950s black-and-white Hollywood television series, the tag-line would have been Jack Reacher rides into town and takes out the trash, because that is basically what Jack Reacher does and does it incredibly and violently well, always taking the side of the oppressed and never seeking fame or fortune for doing so.

In The Sentinel [Bantam] by Lee Child and his brother Andrew, the town in question is a small one in Tennessee which has been the subject of a ‘ransom-ware’ cyber-attack, but there must be more to it than simple extortion. There is, of course, and Reacher – straight off the bus from Nashville – leaps to the defence of the local computer nerds in their fight against mobsters, Russian spies, corrupt cops and even Nazis in their search for ‘The Sentinel’, even though the only sentinel they really need is there already in the swinging fists and flying feet of Reacher himself. (In return, the nerds attempt to teach Jack how to use a mobile phone!)

Reacher fans may have been apprehensive at the announcement that Lee Child was to retire and hand over the franchise to brother Andrew (who is no novice in the thriller game). On the evidence of the plot-twists and furious action in The Sentinel, the fans – and Jack Reacher – are in safe hands.

The advance publicity for A Song For the Dark Times [Orion] tells me that it is by the iconic number one bestseller Ian Rankin, so I presume I can now boast that I knew Ian Rankin before he was an icon.

It is of course the new novel featuring the retired police detective John Rebus (who turns out to be a Jack Reacher fan) and his former partner in crime-fighting Siobhan Clarke (who turns out to be a Karin Slaughter fan), plus regular cast member Malcolm Fox and, naturally, the amiable Edinburgh gangster Big Ger Cafferty squatting like a spider tempting police and crooks alike into his web.

There’s a murder in Edinburgh – a rich Saudi student with a James Bond fetish – but Rebus doesn’t get the chance to poke his nose into that before his daughter Samantha rings from the wilds of north Scotland to tell him that her partner, and the father of Rebus’ grand-daughter, has disappeared. Rebus, in his less-than-reliable Saab, heads north to discover dodgy land deals, a slightly suspicious commune, a missing aristocrat and a WWII prisoner of war camp being recreated as a tourist attraction, and it is in Camp 1033 that a snooping Rebus discovers the dead body of his daughter’s partner. Parallel to all this, Big Ger is getting his claws into Malcolm Fox, ostensibly saving an about-to-be-appointed senior female police officer from public embarrassment caused by her husband’s indiscretions, whilst at the same time expanding his network of drug dealers.

Can Rankin pull all these threads together? Of course he can and he does it with such fluidity and ease that it is positively irritating. It may be heresy and will get me banned from the Oxford Bar (again), but I really like it when Rebus leaves Edinburgh and takes the road to the Highlands, as he did in the case of ‘the A9 Killer’. He somehow seems more vulnerable out in wild country and in A Song for the Dark Times when the ageing Rebus, now alone and devoid of police powers, is violently intimidated, the reader wants to shout ‘You’re too old to be taking such risks’ but you know Rebus won’t listen. The book also has a stonking cliff-hanging ending.

Charles Cumming’s new novel Box 88 [HarperCollins] proves two things, not that they were really ever in doubt: firstly, that spy fiction did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which many predicted it would, and, secondly, with British spies, it’s all a matter of class.

Recruited straight from an elite boarding school (a thinly-disguised one near Windsor), the young Lachlan Kite is recruited into the world of espionage for a most unusual gap year which has repercussions thirty years later when he is kidnapped and tortured by dodgy characters who may be from the Iranian intelligence service. In the intervening years, Kite has graduated to a senior position in ‘Box 88’, a shadowy network of spies who work above and often beyond the established British and American security services, yet his Iranian captors seem only interested in his youthful experiences as a fledgling MI6 agent back in 1989.

As Kite suffers, a cohort of present-day MI5 agents barnstorm through London trying to find him. Most of them are not in Kite’s class and clearly watch too much television, labelling agents with operational code-names including Cagney and Lacey and even Villanelle and Eve. (For older readers there are references in the flashbacks to someone looking ‘like River Phoenix’, Bobby Ewing and, gruesomely, the TV show Game For A Laugh.) The brightest star by far is the young Cara Jannaway, a grammar-school girl from Ipswich who had never fully understood the widespread British prejudice against public schoolboys. It wasn’t exactly their fault that at the age of eight, their parents had seen fit to pack them off to boarding school with not much more than a tuck box and a thermal vest. Yet for all her sympathy, Cara can still turn a cynical eye on ‘establishment’ figures (male, of course) gathered at a funeral: Some of them, with their signet rings and their Thomas Pink shirts, looked like dyed-in-the-wool Tory whack jobs pining for the halcyon days of Agincourt and Joan Hunter Dunn.

I once heard a lovely story about John Grisham, from a neighbour of his in Mississippi, which I do hope is true. When, as often happened, an excited fan approached him with the words “I’ve got a great idea for your next book!” Grisham would put on a big smile, shake their hand enthusiastically and say “So have I!” And, indeed, he has.

His new legal thriller, A Time For Mercy [Hodder & Stoughton] sees Grisham’s return to small-town Mississippi court rooms and characters from his debut novel A Time To Kill, this time tackling the question of whether murder can ever be justified, when a young man kills the drunken boyfriend who is abusing his mother. The problem (well, one of the problems) is that the boyfriend is a cop and in this small town, no-one likes a cop-killer.

And before anyone writes in, I am sure Mr Grisham has a good idea for his next novel. He seems to have no shortage of them.

Inspired by the real life adventures of the famous barrister Norman Birkett (1883-1962), but frankly, a bit of a nerd, Arthur Skelton is the legal eagle created by David Stafford in Skelton’s Guide To Domestic Poisons [Allison & Busby]. Sometimes aided and often abetted by his hypochondriac clerk Edgar, Skelton has, almost accidentally, earned himself a reputation as a ‘Sir Galahad’ by defending a woman in sensational divorce case, despite his schoolboy Latin almost failing him when it came to describing sexual technicalities.

Arthur and Edgar take on the case of a woman accused of slowly poisoning her abusive husband, a hot topic at the time (1929), when the majority of women had finally got the vote and a General Election looms. Traversing Birmingham and the Midlands in numerous of vehicles (all of which activate Edgar’s chronic travel-sickness), the pair encounter a series of bizarre, highly comic characters. The period detail is lavish, particularly when it comes to popular patented medicines and Vimto (did I detect product-placement here?) and it is all done with a sense of gentle fun. The result is jovial, jocular and joyous.

One of the most charismatic private eyes walking on the mild side of crime fiction is the deliciously outrageous Agatha Raisin, immortalised in the books of the prolific M.C. Beaton, who died last year. In Agatha Raisin Hot To Trot [Constable] the adventures of the eccentric Cotswold-based detective are continued by R. W. Green, a friend of Marion Beaton who was tutored (quite strictly, I’d bet) in the world of Agatha Raisin by her creator before her death.

Hot on the heels of the latest television adaptation, private eye Cormoran Strike returns to the printed page – 927 of them – in Troubled Blood [Sphere] by Robert Galbraith, who, for anyone stranded on Mars growing organic potatoes for the past few years, is really J.K. Rowling. Dedicated fans cannot complain that they are not getting value for money as the new novel weighs in at 1.3 kilos, which is 2lbs 13oz in old money and the frail and elderly, like me, who still think in such terms, may have trouble lifting it.


Finally, two novels which may have been swamped by the September flood, but shouldn’t have been, which spotlight crime and its consequences in parts of cities thousands of miles apart but maybe not that different.

Stone Cold Trouble by Amer Anwar [Dialogue Books] is set in London’s Wild West, mostly in Southall and comes with a recommendation – ‘an authentic slice of Brit Asian noir’ – from Vaseem Khan, whose opinions on most things (especially fine malt liquors) I respect enormously.

Set in Brooklyn in the early 1990s, City of Margins by William Boyd [No Exit] looks as if it will live up to promise of his prize-winning debut novel Gravesend (no, not the one in Kent, but a neighbourhood of Brooklyn).

Which is the most noir and has the snappiest dialogue, Southall or south Brooklyn? There’s only one way to find out: read both.

Omissions and Exclusions

For legal reasons I am unable to offer an informed opinion on a number of titles by authors whose work I admire this month, including Squeeze Me by the reliably hysterically funny Carl Hiaasen, Jo Nesbo’s The Kingdom (which one reviewer has likened to ‘Nordic Ripley’ but I think they mean someone else), the posthumous Andrea Camillieri The Sicilian Method, Kate Rhodes’ new mystery set on the Scilly Isles Pulpit Rock, not to mention Heather Martin’s biography of Lee Child The Reacher Guy and the new thriller from Robert Harris, V2.


I was particularly looking forward to reading V2 but in its absence I must resort to re-reading Joe Poyer’s 1981 fantastical thriller Vengeance 10, which takes the legend of Hitler’s V-weapons and their development at Peenemünde in Pomerania on the Baltic coast, and turns it up to eleven. Well, ten actually, the idea being that a missile many times large than the V2, originally intended to attack America, could also be used for other purposes… Surprise, surprise then when an American mission to the Moon (in 2009) uncovers wreckage, a swastika and a body.

Joe Poyer was a bestselling thriller writer in the 1960s and 70s, known for his ‘techno thrillers’ and alternate history stories, which were lavishly praised by Alistair MacLean. In later years he concentrated on non-fiction military topics and technical guides and manuals on rifles used by the US army. When I mentioned his novels, the most famous of which was North Cape, in this column some years ago, I received a very polite email from California from him saying how pleased he was to be remembered.

Back in the jug again,

The Ripster.


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