Getting Away with Murder

 

Hard Day’s Night

I am always amazed at the number of fresh-faced and enthusiastic readers of crime fiction (or ‘Muggles’) who express envy and awe at the number of crime novels the humble critic has to review. It may seem like the perfect calling for a fan of the genre, but few ‘civilians’ realise the hours of hard work and dedication required to keep abreast of the crime fiction scene. The parties one is forced to attend, for instance, would take a heavy toll on the stamina of the youngest and fittest let alone a man of advanced years, infirm health and unsound mind.


The highlight of the Christmas party season is, of course, the splendid event thrown by the Publishers’ Publicity Circle and the Book Marketing Society, where many hours of solid debate and business are only interrupted by the odd libation and the occasional canapé.  Fortunately the event is held in The Hospital Club, so medical help is never far away and the charming ladies of the Publicity Circle are perfect angels when it comes to looking after elderly gentlemen.

The Spies Have It

It is always a pleasure to meet up with my old comrade-in-arms Peter Guttridge, and a double pleasure to be able to do so out here in the Eastern Marches, specifically in the ancient Suffolk wool town of Lavenham.

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As part of this year’s Lavenham Literary Festival, Mr Guttridge took on the role of interrogatorof Dame Stella Rimington, the former headof MI5 and now an established practitioner of espionagefiction, in front of a sell-out audience, during which Mr Guttridge managed to extract the information (actually willingly given) that Dame Stella’s favourite fictional spy was none other than George Smiley.

I, for one, find it very reassuring to discover that one’s national spymaster-in-chief is not only very charming, but also has such good taste.

Oaken Hearts

At this time of year it is all too common to find the public houses of central London crammed with frenetic Christmas shoppers or bursting with raucous teams of football fans of a Saturday lunchtime. However, one splendid hostelry near Regent’s Park saw a more intellectual invasion last week when the Margery Allingham Society held its Winter Lunch there.

Naturally, most of the table talk was about Margery Allingham, one of the true greats of English crime writing, but the presence of Seona Ford of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society and Roger Johnson (pictured below with MAS chairman Barry Pike) of the Sherlock Holmes Society ensured that the discussion was not only scholarly but wide-ranging.

 
Above all, it was a fantastically sociable event, perfectly designed to blow away winter blues and perfectly fuelled by excellent Adnams ale from Suffolk, a touch I feel Margery would have approvedof.

For Legal Reasons

The greatest disadvantage of being blacklisted by certain publishers (though perhaps not as many as you might think) is that I sometimes miss the arrival of a new book from an author I admire and, sometimes, like personally.

Imagine then my chagrin at missing a new novel from the vivacious Elizabeth Corley whom I have not seen for several years, but whose launch parties, held deep in the City of London (roughly in the area of the Roman Forum) were once legendary. In defiance of spurious Restraining Orders I would certainly have attended the launch of Dead Of Winter in September, if there was one and I had known about it.

As it is, I will have to put her new novel on my Christmas List (which already covers several sheets of parchment) or if the worst comes to the worst, go out and buy the damn thing. But without Elizabeth’s trademark lipstick kiss on the title page (far more interesting than having to sign copies at a launch), it just won’t be the same.

Old Masters

When it comes to the jolly old interweb, I regard myself more as a ‘Platinum Potterer’ rather than a ‘Silver Surfer’ and whilst pottering the other day, I chanced upon a sale of Hard Case Crime novels, including a Charles Williams title I had not read. Naturally, I immediately snapped up Hard Case’s 2006 edition of Williams’ 1953 thriller A Touch of Death.

I say ‘naturally’ in the sense that of course I would jump at the chance to snap up an unread Charles Williams, because I know of the quality of his work in the hardboiled school of American crime fiction and am a long standing admirer, as were the great John D. MacDonald and the famous critic Anthony Boucher.

Charles Williams (1909-1975) wrote, I believe, some twenty crime novels, his hey-day being the 1950s and early ‘60s and for a time was a well-known name in Britain thanks to Pan paperback editions of many of his books.

In the 1980s there was renewed interest in his work when the films Dead Calm and The Hot Spot appeared, both based on his novels and both No Exit Press and Xanadu’s Blue Murder imprints made a valiant attempt to get some of his books back in print.

Whilst many of Williams’ tough, noirish crime capers were set in small town America (the small town always having at least one femme fatale for whom the hero falls), there was another side to Williams’ writing thanks to his ten year stint in the US Merchant marine as a radio operator. In a way, Charles Williams carved himself a unique sub-genre, that of sea-going noir, as he could not only write about tough guys (and tough women) but he could depict danger and menace on a sailing boat in either the Gulf of Mexico or the middle of the Pacific with the skill of  a Joseph Conrad. If you don’t believe me – and you have the slightest interest in sailing (as I know some people do; mostly those who like to stand around in damp clothing holding spilled glasses of Watson’s Trawlerman’s rum) then seek out Dead Calm, Aground or Scorpion Reef (originally published as Gulf Coast Girl).

I was prompted to this little homage to Charles Williams by the acquisition of A Touch of Death (which is most excellent by the way and features not one but three pretty dangerous women), but that in turn reminded me of an incident two years ago when I was introduced to a young British crime writer said, by his publishers, to be ‘the future of noir fiction’. Politely I enquired what had been the formative influences on the young noirista; to which he answered ‘the classic Americans’. ‘Such as?’ I tempted him and he replied ‘Elmore Leonard of course’. When I asked if had read any Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich or David Goodis, he admitted nervously that he had not. When I mentioned Charles Willeford and Charles Williams, he looked totally blank and said ‘Who?’

At that point I retired to the very generous open bar provided in search of a femme fatale.

In the Murder Room

The Murder Room is, I believe, an initiative by publishers Orion to get out-of-print classic crime novels available in eBook format (and occasionally as a proper book, though I have never seen one). Recently, a number of authors and reviewers were asked to ‘blog’ (whatever that means) on the topic ‘Read a great movie/TV show’ (go to http://bit.ly/HxUxvB ).

I was honoured to be asked to join a fascinating band of contributors choosing a widely varied selection of novels which have been transposed to the big screen, but to ring the changes I chose the Elmore Leonard short story which inspired the TV series Justified. Among my fellow bloggers, Shots’ very own Ayo Onatade went for Farewell My Lovely, Maxim Jakubowski chose Vertigo and Professor Barry Forshaw, eschewing Scandinavia for once, opted for that English classic The League of Gentlemen.

Perhaps the most unexpected choice was that of Scottish crime-writing superstar Denise Mina who chose William Hjortsberg’s 1978 wonderfully creepy piece of supernatural noir Falling Angel, which was filmed by Alan Parker as Angel Heart. I say unexpected not because the novel is an unusual choice – I think it a great choice and a stunning thriller – but rather because the brief to the blogging contributor was “Read a great movie” and Denise’s piece actually advises against seeing Alan Parker’s film. Read the book by all means (you really should) but, says Denise, the film is not a patch on the novel. In fact, as she concludes with traditional Scottish understatement, the film version is: “Utter, utter pants”!

Under the Wire

Arriving just in time to make my Christmas To-Be-Read pile, but sadly too late to cover in November’s column, I must mention three new titles from authors who should need no introduction from me. If they do, then you simply haven’t been paying attention.

Even if you’ve never read a novel by Frances Fyfield – and you ought to have – you may have heard her excellent Radio 4 series of musical detective work Tales from the Stave. Her new novel, from Sphere, is Casting the First Stone and is a wonderfully atmospheric tale involving art theft and the fascination of the sea, both of which are among Frances’ passions. (Well, art is; I’m not sure about the theft bit.)

Although not as well-known as Frances Fyfield yet, the prolific Mari Hannah (five novels published in two years) may one day be so. She certainly shares a passion for (and a talent in describing) rugged coastlines – in this case Northumberland – as shown in her new novel Monument To Murder which features her Northern, female police detective  DCI Kate Daniels, who is a heroine to watch. In fact, she and her creator have already been spotted as their first outing, The Murder Wall, recently won the Polari First Book Prize, which is awarded “for books which explore the LGBT experience”   (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender if you have to ask). Mari Hannah will also be appearing at “the first ever Polari event north of Watford” at the Huddersfield Literary Festival in March 2014.

Last, but certainly not least, a new book by the irritatingly talented George Pelecanos is an automatic addition to a To-Be-Read pile.  The Double, from Orion, also touches on art theft in a way, but there are no Geordie female police detectives – rather a tough Iraq War veteran – and no salt-tang sea-spumed coastlines, rather the very mean streets of Washington DC.

 

 

Shots of the Year

In years gone by, that august American magazine of crime and mystery fiction, Deadly Pleasures, would always make a point of reviewing in detail all the latest winners of ‘Dagger’ awards from the British Crime Writers Association. It was sometimes a thankless task – as some of the books would not have been published in the USA – and it was clear on occasion that Deadly Pleasures’ reviewers were at odds with the decisions of the CWA judges.

I fear that my Shots of the Year Awards, should they take up the challenge to review them, will only increase the work load of fellow reviewers across the Atlantic as none of them – not one – has featured as a CWA winner this year. Or perhaps I should say that none of the CWA winners made it on to the Shots 2013 list – though one did come very close indeed. All this proves, though, is that the CWA are probably very wise not to have asked me to be a judge for more than ten years now.

The Awards for 2013, which include the new category of  Reissue of the Year, come with no cash prize or particular kudos, but lots of goodwill, and are as follows:

Crime Shot of the Year: the zany, frantic and utterly enthralling Death On Demand by Paul Thomas [Bitter Lemon Press] which showed that the Godfather of crime writing in New Zealand is back with a vengeance.

Thriller Shot of the Year: Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith [Simon & Schuster]. Whistle-blowing journalists, oligarchs, corrupt policemen and an outrageous political scam in contemporary Russia with, in Arkady Renko, one of the great fictional heroes of the last thirty years.

Historical Shot of the Year: This was the closest one to call with, once again, some seriously good historical thrillers from D. J. Taylor, Sam Eastland and John Lawton, but the title goes to Dead Man’s Land by Rob Ryan [Simon & Schuster] which gloriously dared to put Dr Watson (and an off-stage Sherlock Holmes) on the western Front during WWI in an engaging mystery which also says much about the role and status of women at the time. Ryan’s tour-de-force narrowly pipped Andrew Taylor’s Scent of Death set, intriguingly, in colonial New York.

Comic Shot of the Year: Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen [Sphere]. After a few quiet years by his standards, Hiaasen has recently reasserted himself as the crime king of belly laughs, most of them in deliciously bad taste. With Bad Monkey he is back on top form even if the title character (a veteran animal actor from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) hardly gets a look in.

Debut Shot of the Year: City of Blood by M.D. Villiers [Harvill Secker]. A quite stunning first novel but I seriously recommend that no one visits the parts of Johannesburg described here without a heavily-armed escort. Martie de Villiers has created a formidable detective duo (one white, one Zulu) and enhanced South Africa’s growing reputation as a major player on the international crime writing scene.

Shot in Translation: Everyone in their Place by Maurizio de Giovanni [Europa]. Fascinating mix of Christie-like whodunit and spooky thriller set in 1931 Naples. Police detectives Ricciardi (who has a sixth sense and ‘sees dead people’) and the weight-conscious Maione make a great team, contending with a summer heat-wave, Fascist politics, the attractions of several females, the aristocracy, a curious OVRA (Mussolini’s Gestapo) agent and a society murder.

Reissue Shot of 2013:Blue Octavo by John Blackburn [Valancourt]. Great to see this 1963 mystery set in the world of antiquarian book dealers back in print. A disgracefully-forgotten author in his native Britain, Blackburn’s reputation is thankfully being rescued by enthusiastic American fans.

Comfort Zone

There are some mysteries you re-tread because you love the characters, others because you want to be reminded of a clever plot or story structure. Then there are some, like porridge with Golden Syrup, you appreciate as comfort food.

One such for me is Frank Arthur’s The Suva Harbour Mystery, though I am hard pressed to explain quite why. First published in 1941 under title Who Killed Netta Maul? it was no mould-breaker or best-seller and if it is ever mentioned at all in crime fiction reference books,  it is usually described as simply “readable”. The author, Frank Arthur (pen-name of Arthur Frank Ebert 1902-84) worked as an accountant in the Fiji Islands in the 1930s and set a handful of mysteries there, though only Suva Harbour (reprinted in 1989) seems to survive, most commonly as a 1948 green Penguin in charity bookshops.

The book offers all the attractions – and irritations – of a so-called ‘Golden Age’ English detective story, even a map, but with one distinct difference: the setting.

The lead detective, Inspector Spearpoint of the Fijian Constabulary (who as a character owes a lot to Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French) is both assisted and hindered by his rather uppity English deputy Sharpe in the case of the murder of a half-caste ‘good-time’ girl – the Netta Maul of the original title – in particularly gruesome circumstances. His investigation, despite some rather tedious alibi-checking in meticulous ‘Golden Age’ tradition, gives a fascinating pictureof what life was like in those far-off days when much of the world map was coloured pink.

There are some nicely-judged barbs in there about colonialism and the ruling white elite, many of whom have very silly names, but I suppose the thing which appealed to me most was the fact that it was the first crime novel I had read set in exotic, far-off Fiji. Come to think of it, it still is.

Penny Bright

As Canadian superstar Louise Penny was taking time off her busy schedule of award-collecting, the least I felt I could do was to hack my way across the Autumnal Fens to Cambridge to catch her one and only public appearance in the UK in last month, and to introduce my old chum Baroness Cohen (who writes crime as Janet Neel) as well as catching up with Louise’s charming husband Michael Whitehead.

Louise was, as usual, on excellent form and spoke amusingly (and movingly) about the trials and tribulations of getting published for the first time, her adventures researching monastic life, her pride in being a Canadian crime-writer and the stress of attending all those award ceremonies. She was, however, strangely reluctant to talk about a recent Canadian television adaptation of her book Still Life, which stars Nathaniel Parker (better known on television perhaps as Elizabeth George’s ‘Inspector Lynley’) as her much-loved series hero Armand Gamache.

News in Brief

I have clearly not followed the career of Meg Gardiner, whose latest thriller The Shadow Tracer is out in paperback (from Penguin) this month, closely enough as I completely missed the moment when she became known as M.G. Gardiner rather than Meg on her dust jackets. I should probably be cautious about using the word ‘following’ here, as Meg was the winner of the ominously-named Stalker Award for ‘favourite author on social media’ in 2012. Perhaps if I followed things more closely I would know what ‘social media’ was.

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My old mate John Harvey tells me (so it must be true) that the twelfth “and final” Charlie Resnick novel Darkness, Darkness will be published in May 2014 by Random House and that the plot recalls events during the miners’ strike thirty years ago. For those afflicted with short-memories or cursed with youth, I would point out that miners were men who dug coal, often deep underground, and that the first ten Charlie Resnick books, published between 1989 and 1998, were the best series of British crime novels to feature an ensemble cast of police detectives. The series was, more than once, referred to as ‘an English Hill Street Blues’ and featured, briefly, in an inexplicably short-lived BBC television adaptation starring Tom Wilkinson.

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The publication of bestselling American author David Baldacci’s new novel King and Maxwell by Macmillan this month comes with the news that the television series based on the characters (two former Secret Service agents turned private detective; catchline “Ex Secret Service At Your Service”), which premiered in the USA in June and was cancelled in September, is to be broadcast in the UK in the Spring.

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I offer a quick round-up of the juiciest titles announced so far for 2014 elsewhere, but surely worthy of a Stop Press item it its own right is the news that Mantle is publishing the first Korean thriller I have ever seen. The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee will appear in March and is set in the last months of WWII in the notorious Fukuoka Prison in Japan, inspired by the true story of Korean poet Yun Dong-ju who died there in 1945.

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The 2014 Essex Book Festival, which takes place all over the county in March, provides many treats from crime fiction fans and I will be providing full details in January’s Getting Away With Murder.

Leetle Grey Sells

Already a best seller, and no doubt a popular Christmas present for thousands of dedicated fans, David Suchet’s Poirot and Me (Headline) is as neat and fastidious a memoir as one might expect from Hercule Poirot – or rather, the actor who has played him for a quarter of a century – and Mr Suchet/M. Poirot will be at a special signing session at Goldsboro Books in London on 9th December.

Oddly enough, Mr Suchet’s book makes no mention of that famous evening in 1991 when, as a guest of the Crime Writers’ Association, he was called upon to present me with the Last Laugh Award. It must have slipped his mind, but I distinctly remember the occasion - and our snatched conversation when he asked me, in a whisper, why I was getting a propelling pencil when the other award winners were receiving impressive ornamental CWA Daggers. ‘It’s for comedy,’ I whispered back conspiratorially. ‘We call it the Rubber Dagger.’

Mr Suchet was highly amused by that, or acted that way (and he is a very good actor), but the title never seemed to catch on with the CWA…

There is no disputing that David Suchet has made the role of Poirot his own, although other actors have played the part including Charles Laughton, Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Tony Randall (!) and, of course, Ian Holm.

Ian Holm? Ian ‘Bilbo Baggins’ Holm? Yes indeed, in the 1986 TV movie Murder by the Book which described the rather surreal exchanges between Agatha Christie and her character as she plotted his demise in the novel Curtain, which was recently David Suchet’s swansong performance in the role.

I remember seeing Murder by the Book and being very impressed with the story-behind-the-story approach to Curtain, the novel famously written in the 1940s and then locked away until publication in 1975 just before Dame Agatha’s death. It has, to the best of my knowledge, never been repeated on British television and the DVD version seems to be only available in America.

Crystal Ball Gazing

As I have a busy schedule of parties, carol services and Saturnalia revels to attend over the next few weeks, I thought I had better give you fair warning now of some of the more interesting crime fiction I have sensed coming in the early months of 2014.

First up, in January, a debut novel of which my chum Sophie Hannah speaks very highly (‘an intricate historical historical thriller in the tradition of Hilary Mantel’) by Sophia Tobin called The Silversmith’s Wife (Simon & Schuster).  Published on the same day by Corvus, what could also be called a historical thriller (albeit set in 1962 as opposed to 1792 for Silversmith’s Wife) although Manhatten 62 is far from a debut novel as it comes from the experienced pen of Reggie Nadelson, who is back on her home turf of New York at the height of the Cuban missile crisis.

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Before the year is out I will have read the new novel Of Cops & Robbers by South African Mike Nicol, as I have acquired an advanced copy from publishers Old Street, and I am sure I will be recommending it most highly when it is published to mere mortals in February. I am able to say much the same thing with absolute confidence about A Nasty Piece of Work by American spy-fiction supremo Robert Littell, which is published by Duckworth but for which the general reading public will have to wait (bless!) until March.

 

Finally, one to watch for in April is another psychological, woman-in-peril thriller clearly aimed at the Before I Go To Sleep market (which I suspect is quite big). The Book of You  is a debut novel by Claire Kendal to be published by HarperCollins following, they say, ‘a six-way auction’. Now I have no idea what a ‘six-way auction’ might be, despite making sure that I never miss an episode of Bargain Hunt

And here it is, Merry Christmas

Having been inspired by all those tasteful personalised greetings cards offered by the Moon Pig Corporation, I have decided to design my own Christmas card this year based ona 1709 painting of Ripster Hall and its grounds.

In order to show my concerns for the environment, I would ask all who would like or expect a card from me this year to use the screen capture function on their computers and photo-shop the words ‘Merry Christmas’ (or ‘Happy Holiday’ if you are American and sensitive about such things) preferably in bright, glittery colours on to it.

Thus will I save a vast amount on postage and avoid contributing to the profits of those running dog capitalist hyenas who managed to get shares in Royal Mail where many responsible, land-owning, mostly law-abiding pensioners did not.

Bah, humbug!

The Ripster

 
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