It’s Dark Outside – Sixties TV Drama

Recently we’ve had a wonderful time watching It’s Dark Outside, an early 1960s police drama that’s undeservedly obscure. Unlike most Sixties’ series, neither of us can recall watching this the first time round, though we both think our families did. I was just too young to remember, though have the vaguest recall that my family watched the sequel Mr Rose.It's Dark Outside [DVD] [1964]

It’s Dark Outside – a great title – was made by Granada and broadcast in 1964. This is a stylish production, set off by a memorable jazz theme tune written by Derek Hilton. The lead, Chief Inspector Rose of Scotland Yard, was played by William Mervyn, against his usual type of amiable, oldish upper-class gents. I’ve always remembered him fondly from the Sixties as the bishop in the sit-com All Gas and Gaiters. Chief Inspector Rose is still urbane and upper-class, frequenting gentlemen’s clubs but here his character is cool and abrasive, at times pompous. He’s a very astute detective.

Rose’s sidekick was played in the first series by a young Keith Barron, as Sergeant Swift. Superbly acted, Swift is an interesting character, an outsider, prickly, suspicious, determined and good at his job. The dynamic between the two detectives is very well done. Swift has a working-class defensiveness and Rose often demolishes him with a steely remark. You feel that Sergeant Swift partly despises Rose’s comfortable world and partly wishes he could belong. They respect each other’s ability and Rose is a fair man, often coming to Swift’s rescue in various ways.

The characters of Charles Rose and John Swift first appeared in an earlier drama, The  Odd Man, which ran from 1960-3. The eponymous lead was not Chief Inspector Rose, but a theatrical agent and sometime amateur detective, played by Geoffrey Toone and later Edwin Richfield, two more good character actors. Rose and Swift, appearing in the later series, were popular enough to get their own spin-off. (Keith Barron replaced Alan Tilvern in the final series). How we wish we could see this and many other series, criminally wiped – to reuse the tape – in the Sixties and even beyond.

Though Chief Inspector Rose and Sergeant Swift share the lead credits, It’s Dark Outside is something of an ensemble drama with Rose’s friends, Anthony and Alice Brand, as prominent support throughout the first series. Anthony Brand, played by John Carson, is a leading Q.C. who is very involved with a human rights organisation.

John Carson has been one of my favourite character actors (quite a long list, mind) for decades. He had a compelling presence and a rich, attractive voice, often likened to that of James Mason. A versatile actor, often cast as a memorable villain, though I always remember him as playing my favourite version of Mr Knightley in a 1972 BBC production of  Emma.

His wife Alice, a freelance journalist, is played by June Tobin. She too had a great screen presence, intelligent and sultry in that late fifties/early sixties style epitomised by Honor Blackman, Diana Dors and Sue Lloyd among others. I’ve really enjoyed watching her work, which was unfamiliar to me.

The acting is first class throughout, though I’d say Keith Barron had the stand-out performance, against stiff competition. The series has some terrific guest stars such as Tony Steedman, Ronald Radd, Diana Coupland, Kenneth Colley and a very young James Bolam.

Created by Marc Brandel, It’s Dark Outside is wonderfully written with edgy, subtle, crime stories that pull no punches. This was writing for the grown-ups. The beginning of the BBC’s long glory days when they assumed they were creating drama for intelligent viewers with a proper attention-span. Scenes are longer than directors would ever dare linger these days and each episode feels more like a play than television. Being completely studio-bound, in grainy black and white just adds to the absorbing atmosphere, a sort of British noir meets kitchen sink drama.

Episodes give original slants to tough subject-matter including paedophile murder, terrorism, human rights, immigration and race crime. Week after week they seemed uncannily topical. A reminder that essentially, in fifty years, things have changed less than we like to think.

Unusually for the Sixties, It’s Dark Outside has a definite story arc. This builds to a stunning series finale in episode 8. Neither of us saw a shocking, brilliantly written twist coming. These days there’d be spoilers everywhere. I’m sure the TV Times was more discreet back then.

The box-set concludes with sadly the only two surviving episodes from the second series. Only Chief Inspector Rose remains and in this series he was joined by Anthony Ainley, Veronica Strong and John Stratton. Again written by Marc Brandel, they’re extremely good and it looked as though the new series was going for a slightly lighter feel. There are some amusing scenes with Anthony Ainley’s character, Detective-Sergeant Hunter, who is none too pleased to be picked by Rose as his new assistant.

Marc Brandel was a superb script-writer. It’s frustrating that none of us will ever see the lost episodes. It’s Dark Outside is a fascinating survival of television history and sheer quality. Well worth seeking out.

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Finding Novel Locations

We’ve been in York, searching out locations for the third William Quest novel. Interesting to walk around a city getting atmosphere for an historical thriller set in 1854. As an historical location, York is easier than most. Such a lot survives, compared to other places in Britain.

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York Minster

In the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest, my hero is mostly adventuring in London – a place which has changed a great deal since the mid-Victorian period. But the Victorian elements can still be sought out even there, though they are few and far between. I’ve spent such a lot of years studying Victorian London that it seems very familiar to me. Indeed, modern London seems strange whenever I’m there.

York is a joy. Although there has been modern development and new shop fascias, many of the streets would still be recognisable to a man from 1854. In my book, William Quest has never been to York before, so he’s lost one of the great advantages he’s had while  carrying out his often dubious activities in London – which he knows like the back of his hand.

For anyone who’s never encountered William Quest, he’s a mysterious figure, usually armed with a pistol and a swordstick, who rights wrongs, defends the weak against the strong, fights corruptions and has his own occasional vigilante methods of dealing with wrongdoers.

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Grape Lane

 

But in this book he’s having to take on the role of detective as well, solving a puzzle that has baffled the citizens of York…

And it means peril, high adventure and a sinister conspiracy….

Having spent the past couple of months writing the third Quest (no title as yet), it’s great to revisit familiar old haunts in York – though I confess to spending a lot of time in bookshops. York has some great second-hand bookshops!York October 2017 011

 

 

 

We go to York quite often and always do a lot of walking around the streets, but I felt I was at the point in the novel where I wanted to see again some of the places I’d mentioned in the chapters written so far. There is one particular street, Tanner Row, which appears in the book and which I didn’t really know at all  – an important street leading to what was once York’s original railway station. The one someone like Quest would have used in 1854.

This original railway station was within the city walls, the present station, though Victorian and magnificent is outside the walls. Much of the old station still exists, though it’s been revamped as offices for the city council.

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Tanner Row

Nearer to the Minster, we walked the streets where the mystery occurs which provides my novel with its plot – the area around Stonegate and Grape Lane. I know these streets very well, but it was valuable to stroll through them with my characters in mind. It’s the little details that make the difference when you are imagining fictional characters in a real landscape.

Most of my novels are set in real places. I often get ideas for stories by just going for a walk. The whole story-line of my 1930’s Scottish novel Balmoral Kill changed when I walked around Loch Muick in the Highlands. You could re-enact the final duel in that novel across a real landscape if you wanted.

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The Old Railway Station

I find as a writer that just going out for a walk is the greatest source of inspiration.

Some areas of York have changed since the 1850s. The streets known as the Water Lanes, down on the River Ouse, were a rookery at that time.  In the 1870s a new road, Clifford Street, was driven through and much of the rest redeveloped. It’s still Victorian and charming to walk through, but not quite the setting Quest would have known.

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On the city walls

Much the same happened in London. Jacob’s Island, where my book Deadly Quest comes to an end, was a much viler rookery than the Water Lanes. Charles Dickens used it for the ending of Oliver Twist, where it is Fagin’s final lair. Today Jacob’s Island is full of very expensive luxury apartments. If the ghosts of the poor devils who lived in the diseased original Island could come back and see it, I do wonder what they would think?

I came back from York enthused by what I’d seen. The visit spurred me on to finish the book. I hope it will be out at the turn of the year.

Though I still don’t have a title!

If you haven’t read the first two William Quest novels, there are links below. Both are available in paperback and on Kindle – and there’s a free Kindle App available for your Smartphones if you like to read on the move.

 

 

 

 

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Hammer’s “Hound of the Baskervilles”

Very slight spoiler alert, but I suspect most readers will be familiar with the tale – so here goes.

Hammer film’s 1959 film version of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, has all the hallmarks of Hammer productions during its gory days (pun intended!)The Hound of the Baskervilles [Blu-ray]

We watched it again the other day. Like most Hammer productions based on novels, it takes considerable liberties with the plot. That being said, it is terrific fun and has the great merit of really good portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, with the wonderful Peter Cushing as the detective and Andre Morell as Watson.

Peter Cushing, of course, did another version of this classic “tail” for the BBC several years later – probably the most faithful version yet filmed, actually using real Dartmoor locations. I saw portions of that one being filmed during my Dartmoor rambles at the time.

Apart from a couple of stock-shots, Hammer went nowhere near Dartmoor. Dartmoor in this production comes courtesy of Surrey’s Chobham Common and Frensham Ponds, plus a lot of studio exteriors. None of the locations look much like Dartmoor. But then Hammer’s Dracula film sets probably only bear a passing resemblance to Transylvania.

This Hammer version might be slightly hammy, but is saved by the lead actors, who also include Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, John Le Mesurier (best known as Sergeant Wilson in the classic Dad’s Army) as the butler Barrymore, Ewen Solon as Stapleton and Miles Malleson, doing his familiar doddery old fool act, as Frankland – elevated to a bishopric in this telling.

As with most Hammer films there is a voluptuous leading lady, in this case Marla Landi as Beryl Stapleton. Miss Landi (who went on in real life to marry the baronet Sir Francis Dashwood, descendant of that famous gent in history with Hellfire Club connections), plays the role with her own very strong Italian accent, though her father, Stapleton, is clearly English. And in the film she is Stapleton’s daughter, rather than his wife (posing as a sister) as she does in the book.

Normally I’d quibble a bit at this bit of casting, but Miss Landi is great fun as Baskerville’s femme fatale. And a Hammer film without a bit of sex appeal wouldn’t be a Hammer film.

The film, as I’ve suggested, does take considerable liberties with the plot of the novel: enter a tarantula spider, a ruined abbey, Holmes trapped down a Dartmoor tin mine, ritual sacrifice, Frankland as the collector of butterflies rather than Stapleton, Sir Henry Baskerville with a serious heart condition, a malevolent Miss Stapleton – the list goes on.

But then, if you want a more faithful rendition seek out Peter Cushing’s BBC version. The Hammer version is not one for the Holmesian purist, but if you want a bit of escapist fun then Hammer’s attempt passes an amusing couple of hours.

And the Hammer brand is now in itself iconic. During their heyday they produced great entertainment. This Hound, for all the liberties it takes, does give a real flavour of the book and it probably introduced new readers to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Its absurdities are no worse than those taken in the recent modern day Sherlock and similar re-tellings.

Archive blog: “The Country of the Hound of the Baskervilles” May 2015.

 

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Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’

Published in 1937, Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, known for its intricate plot and exotic setting. Murder takes place aboard the Karnak, a luxurious Nile steamer on a week’s round-trip, sailing to Wâdi Halfa and the Second Cataract, with excursions en route to the spectacular temples of Abu Simbel.Death on the Nile (Poirot) (Hercule Poirot Series Book 17) by [Christie, Agatha]

Hercule Poirot is one of the passengers, escaping from the fogs, the greyness, the monotony of the constantly falling rain of a London winter. As always, he is dressed immaculately to suit the occasion.

He wore a white silk suit, carefully pressed, and a panama hat, and carried a highly ornamental fly whisk with a sham amber handle.

During an excursion, Poirot sports a white suit, pink shirt, large black bow tie and a white topee.

The first part of the novel introduces us to most of the passengers in a series of vividly-drawn vignettes. Some scenes are quite brief, though Agatha Christie makes every word tell with her usual economy of style. The lynch-pin of the Nile journey will be Linnet Ridgeway, a young heiress and society beauty, soon to be married and visiting Egypt on her honeymoon.

Readers can be fairly sure from the start that Linnet is going to be the murder victim. We’re shown an overwhelming reason for one character to hate her and given tantalising hints that others have a strong motive to remove her. It’s interesting that the original jacket copy on the Collins facsimile edition only implies that Linnet Ridgeway will be the victim. Much better than today’s blurbs which frequently give away too much of the plot.

When the passengers are gathered at their hotel, Poirot is aware of a feeling of inexorable danger, an inevitability about what lies ahead. There are indications throughout Agatha Christie’s writing that she was intrigued by the notion of fate – perhaps due to her extensive travels in the Middle East. Her titles Appointment With Death, The Moving Finger and Postern of Fate hark back to this theme.

Christie builds the growing tension skilfully for 130 pages until the murder finally takes place. These days I seem to see a lot of reviews that complain of a slow pace in detective novels. Writing guides deem it essential to hook the reader with instant compelling action. Must be my age, because I like crime fiction where the author takes all the space they wish to show characters and setting. I really enjoy a lengthy build-up – a trademark of superb crime writers such as P.D James – and think currently fashionable style ‘rules’ are a kind of dumbing down, symptomatic of our sound-bite society.

The suspects being trapped together on the steamer, makes an interesting variation on the classic enclosed country house setting. The Karnak is large enough to have an evocative thirties’ glamour with dressing cabins, an observation saloon and smoking room, yet compact enough to feel claustrophobic. The descriptions of temple visits, the heat and passing scenery feel authentic, based as they must have been on the author’s memories.

At the half-way point, an old friend of Poirot joins the steamer for the return journey. Colonel Race assisted Poirot in Cards on the Table, published a year earlier and aids him again in the investigation. Race, a senior British agent, is on board on his own mission. A foreshadowing of the growing awareness of the coming war and the addition of enemy agents into Agatha Christie’s novels. (This reaches its height in N or M? Published in 1941).

The plot is unusually complex for Christie, with several small mysteries for Poirot to unravel along the way. Despite the tense atmosphere, Christie manages to include some quiet humour and more than one romance. Her liking for romance and happiness for young people shines through, as it does in many of her novels. It’s evident that Christie had great sympathy for youth, particularly the awkward and the over-looked.

The break-up of her marriage to Archie Christie and her life-long shyness are widely known. Even when happily settled with Max Mallowan, it’s easy to imagine Agatha Christie being the quiet people-watcher in the corner. Noticing what others miss, full of compassion and kindness, very like Hercule Poirot.

The central murder plot stands or falls, more than most, on its believable psychology. It succeeds magnificently, this is Christie’s understanding of human nature at its most acute. A brilliantly cunning plot device is one that she used in another novel – which of course, I won’t mention! Nothing wrong with authors doing a spot of recycling, especially when they trail-blazed the twists in the first place.

Death on the Nile is acclaimed as one of Agatha Christie’s greatest triumphs. I hadn’t read it since my teens and had a job to put it down. A deeply satisfying read.

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The Limehouse Golem

Last week, we went to see the film The Limehouse Golem, based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which I blogged about a couple of years ago. (I’ve put my original blog on the novel below to save you searching.) The Limehouse Golem [DVD] [2017]

It’s a terrific take on the novel, with some great acting, a literate script by Jane Goldman, and some excellent sets that take you right back into Victorian London. The photography is superb.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, because I’ve mentioned the salient parts in the book blog below. Jane Goldman has made a few minor alterations to the plot for film purposes, but these make no difference to the story.

I’m always wary of filmed Victorian crime stories, because the slightest error jars. But there are no errors here. I was completely absorbed by the telling of the tale. Rarely have I seen a crime novel set in this period so well done.

This film stars Bill Nighy as Inspector Kildare, his role slightly expanded from the novel. The part was to have been played by Alan Rickman – one of our favourite actors – who sadly died early in the project. But Nighy makes an excellent Kildare, every inch the Victorian policeman. And how good to see Nighy get a lead credit.

There’s a great deal of British acting talent here – familiar faces such as Daniel Mays, Clive Russell, Eddie Marsan and Henry Goodman. All looking as though they’ve emerged from the streets of Limehouse.

But the film rises with the talents of two newcomers to me. Douglas Booth is quite stunning in the role of Dan Leno, totally believable as perhaps the greatest of music hall showmen. I’ve always had a great interest in Leno, a fascinating individual who forged the way we perceive popular entertainment of this kind, from straight entertainment, jests and songs, pantomime to burlesque, Leno was the grand master. His relatively early death in 1904 shocked the nation.

The tragedy of music hall before this period is that we have only scratchy recordings of some of the best acts (we’ve got just such a recording of Leno). Not being able to see these stars visually makes it hard to grasp how good they might have been. I’m old enough to have seen some of the early twentieth century stars live on the stage. They were good indeed – we’ll not see their likes again. But few of the Victorians were filmed, then only silently.

But Douglas Booth surely captures a great deal of Leno’s magic. Here’s an actor to watch out for in the future.

The key role of Elizabeth Cree goes to Olivia Cooke. Cooke is as good as Booth in portraying the growing confidence of a music hall singer, caught up in the murderous twists of the tale.

Try and see it at the cinema if you can with an audience around you – more like a music hall atmosphere than watching it at home on DVD.

Though we’ll be adding it to our DVD collection when it’s out.

Here’s my blog on the original novel…

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has now been out for over twenty years. Given my interests in Victorian crime and the history of the music hall I’ve always been meaning to read it.

Now I’ve finally got round to it and I can say that it’s a terrific read, evoking a real feel of the Victorian underworld in Ackroyd’s usual and very vivid writing style.

As a writer Ackroyd is well-known not just as a novelist but as an historian and biographer. If you haven’t read it I commend to you his London – A biography – perhaps the best of all recent histories of the city.

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is not your usual crime read. It’s a deeply literary novel which happens to be about crime and the low-life and middle-class existence of Victorian London. And there’s a lot more to it than that. Ackroyd has a way of plunging you deep into this imagined vision of a past age.

For those who don’t know, Dan Leno was perhaps the greatest star of Victorian music hall. But he is not the only real-life character encountered in this book. We also see the struggling writer George Gissing and a glimpse of Karl Marx during his London exile.

This is a book which begins with a hanging and works backwards. We see how his key character Elizabeth Cree progresses as a music hall turn, the murders of a serial killer, the legend of the Jewish golem, a trial at the Old Bailey and pages from the diary of John Cree delineating many aspects of Victorian life – for this is a novel of multiple viewpoints.

Ackroyd is so very good at exploring the sinister hinterlands of the Victorian underworld. The author’s great knowledge of London shines through on every page. Terrible secrets are revealed and the ending is just stunning.

A novel you’ll want to read more than once – thoroughly recommended!

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The Holly House Mystery On Sale

Our second novella, ‘The Holly House Mystery’ is on sale at only 99 pence/cents. Offer ends on the 25th September.

“Friends, please accept this, the only intimation!”

‘The Holly House Mystery’ is set in 1931 and is the second outing for Inspector Eddie Chance of Tennysham-on-sea in Sussex.

This is our take on a classic Golden Age-style murder mystery, set at a winter country house-party. Featuring the usual suspects – including the host, the male secretary, the femme fatale, the young couple and the butler – who murdered the house-maid found in the priory ruins and why?

The setting of Holly House was loosely inspired by the real-life Michelham Priory in present-day East Sussex. (Never taken to the idea of my birth county being split). Michelham Priory is owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society and open to the public. See http://www.sussexpast.co.uk for details.

Originally an Augustinian foundation and ravaged in the Dissolution, today’s Michelham Priory is a lovely Tudor country house. The site is idyllic, a 7 acre near-island, surrounded by England’s longest medieval moat that still has water. A 14th century gatehouse and a picturesque water-mill have survived. The moat is a haven for wildlife and wild flowers and the gardens are glorious, including a medieval-style physic garden. (They also have delicious baking in the tea-room).

Places to visit in Sussex Michelham Priory

The enclosed nature of the setting inspired our homage to the popular vintage murder mystery with a limited number of suspects.

The length is 34,000+ words – ideal for a commute or a cosy couple of evenings.

We hope you enjoy – and would really appreciate any reviews as this helps all indie authors keep writing.

The next full-length Inspector Chance mystery will be out next year.

Here’s the link if you want to order a copy…

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This Gun For Hire

This Gun for Hire is Hollywood’s film noir take on Grahame Greene’s early (1936) novel A Gun For Sale, with the setting altered to America and an all American cast. (Though Alan Ladd was actually half English, his mother coming from County Durham).This Gun For Hire [DVD]

There have been several other versions, some using Greene’s original title, a 1957 rather altered remake called Short Cut to Hell (interestingly, directed by James Cagney), and a 1991 television movie with Robert Wagner.

This Gun for Hire features Alan Ladd – billed as a debut turn way down the cast – as Raven, and a terrific performance he gives.

The heroine, showgirl Ellen Graham is played by Veronica Lake, who positively oozes sultriness – the first of three film noir pairings with Ladd. Her detective boyfriend, Michael Crane, is Robert Preston – who actually gets the lead billing on this film, and terrific he is. It would have been great to see him given more hard-boiled roles. Laird Cregar plays the villain of the piece, Willard Gates, giving a performance of seedy cowardice that would have got him an Oscar in a mainstream production.

The basic tale is that the anti-hero Raven, a low-grade hitman is paid for an assassination in marked notes, which will inevitably lead to his downfall. In Greene’s novel, the victim is a government minister in Prague.

But in This Gun For Hire, the initial victim is a blackmailing chemist. Determined to get revenge for being fingered by the marked notes, Raven seeks out Willard Gates and his paymaster, an enemy-collaborating industrialist called Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall). Along the way, Raven falls in with and eventually gets help from showgirl Ellen Graham, who is working on the side for the FBI to infiltrate Brewster’s enemy-friendly organisation.

Like all films with anti-heroes (and most films noir have one) This Gun For Hire stands on our sympathy with Raven. He’s certainly a killer with a conscience, a lover of cats and a determined saviour of the threatened Ellen Graham. Alan Ladd plays him with an honesty that makes you root for him from the start, whatever he does. The film put him on the track to the stardom he deserved.

The pre-war setting of the book (a thinly-disguised Nottingham in England) is changed to wartime California, with the population rehearsing for a possible gas-attack. The wearing of gas masks gives a very sinister feel to several of the film’s best scenes.

The film ends with the obligatory shooting, very intelligently staged. But the climax is over-shadowed by the scenes in a railroad marshalling yard where the police hunt for the fleeing Raven. Scenes that are so well paced and beautifully photographed that they should be an object lesson to a new generation of movie makers.

The very intelligent screenplay was by Albert Maltz (his first screenwriting credit as such, though he’d worked on Casablanca just before) and W.R. Burnett (himself one of the best and definitely most underrated crime writers, author of classic novels such as High Sierra (see blogs passim), The Asphalt Jungle and Little Caesar, and a huge number of screenplays.

The tragedy of it all is that Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Laird Cregar all died far too young. What else might they have achieved?

I’ve seen this now several times over the years and never tire of it. I’ve put the picture up of one DVD version that’s available, though This Gun For Hire often features in film noir box sets with other classics of the genre, which are worth hunting down.

It would be interesting to know what Graham Greene (known at the time as more of a film critic than a novelist) made of this treatment of his story? He went on, of course, to considerable fame. I never met him properly, but we once exchanged “good mornings” in the delightful little old second-hand bookshop that stood under the castle walls of Totnes in Devon, as he knelt on the floor searching out books on one low shelf, while I did the same in a nearby aisle.

After he’d left, the bookseller told me it was one of Mr Greene’s regular haunts. He had good taste – there were always bargains and obscure titles to be found there.

 

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‘The Killings at Badger’s Drift’ by Caroline Graham

When a successful television crime drama started out based on a series of novels, the original books can sometimes be overshadowed. Especially when the drama series has the enduring popularity of Midsomer Murders, still going strong after twenty years and sold worldwide.

We love to curl up with Midsomer, both with John Nettles and Neil Dudgeon. But it’s interesting to strip away all thoughts of Midsomer Murders and re-read Caroline Graham’s The Killings at Badger’s Drift. This was her first outing for Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy. Our edition, published by Headline in 2016, has the bonus of a foreword by John Nettles, who played Tom Barnaby.

Published in 1987, ten years before the television series began, it’s easy to forget what a superb whodunit this is. Though I do recall finding this in the library in the ’80s and thinking it exceptionally good. Caroline Graham used the ever popular setting of murder in a seemingly idyllic village . Probably my favourite setting – like legions of fans, I love classic British detective novels where murder sends shock-waves through a small, rural community.

Miss Simpson, a well-liked, retired village schoolmistress is found dead in her cottage. A death that at first passes for natural causes, until her old friend Miss Bellringer, uneasy at signs that Miss Simpson behaved out of character, persuades the police to investigate.

So what sets The Killings at Badger’s Drift apart from countless other English village mysteries? Elegant writing with an interesting detective and sidekick, well-drawn characters, a strong plot and appealing setting. All a necessity for a decent crime novel, you might say. We could all reel off a quick dozen novelists who deliver all that.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is lifted to another level by the author’s sly wit and moments of humour. The quirkiness of the television series is there, without its trademark bizarre murder methods. Some characters are almost Dickensian-style grotesques, yet they are horribly believable.

I loved the way in which Caroline Graham deals at length with some secondary characters. You get vivid glimpses of their back story and understand how life has shaped them. This reminded me of P.D. James’s detective novels. I always felt it was one of her greatest strengths and in Caroline Graham too, this adds an absorbing depth to the story.

Badgers Drift is St Mary Mead updated. There are council houses and commuters, modern bungalows with over-manicured gardens around the picturesque old cottages with their bee-hives. (The council houses were there in pre-war mysteries though rarely mentioned). Miss Marple would have said that the wickedness hiding beneath the surface of village life is unchanged.

Caroline Graham came up with a fairly underused premise for her series detective – at least in modern times. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is notable for his ordinariness. He’s a decent chap, happily married to Joyce and affectionate father to their daughter Cully. A member of the local art club and keen gardener, he isn’t a troubled maverick, doesn’t have a drink problem and the nearest his family gets to dysfunctional is his wife’s terrible cooking.

There’s more to him than can be shown within the limits of television, though John Nettles caught the essence of the character really well. We learn that earlier in his career, Barnaby was badly affected by certain aspects of his work and discover how he came to terms with his life. He’s an interesting character with a pithy line in put-downs – especially when he needs his indigestion tablets.

The Chief could be very terse at times. He was a big, burly man with an air of calm paternalism which had seduced far sharper men than Gavin Troy into voicing opinions which had then been trounced to smithereens.

Sergeant Gavin Troy is a wonderful contrast to Barnaby. Much younger, he’s torn between wanting to impress his boss and convinced he’s the coming man. Prone to envy and sneering, his thoughts are very funny and despite his prejudices, he’s somehow endearing. In his foreword, John Nettles explains how Troy’s character was toned down for the television series. This is from when Miss Bellringer calls at the police station and speaks to Troy:

The sergeant pretended he had forgotten her name. Occasionally this simple manoeuvre caused people to wonder if their visit was really worth the bother and to drift off, thus saving unnecessary paperwork.

The foreword is well worth having. John Nettles adds some interesting background to his rôle and warmly admires Caroline Graham’s work. He’s one of a select few actors who’ve played two lead detectives in British television series, being fondly remembered as Bergerac in the 1980s.

The novel is intricately plotted with plenty of alibis and red herrings. A point that intrigued me was that Barnaby quickly pieces together the likely motive for the first murder. It’s actually mentioned in the jacket copy. This seems a bold move by the author when the reason for murder is mostly a large part of the final reveal – often, discovering the motive is what finally gives the game away. It does make the plot less formulaic and knowing – partially – why Miss Simpson had to die, doesn’t detract in the slightest from the thrill of the chase.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is a masterclass in whodunit writing and deserves its place on the CWA list of The 100 Best Crime Novels Of All Time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John Buchan’s “Sick Heart River”

John Buchan’s last novel Sick Heart River is not a story of crime, nor is it a thriller. It is a novel of high adventure. But it deserves a mention on Gaslight Crime, because it is the final outing of his series hero Edward Leithen – in many ways the most interesting of Buchan’s characters and perhaps the nearest in temperament to the author himself.Sick Heart River by [Buchan, John]

Leithen made his first appearance in the short story Space and his first real outing in The Power House, which we reviewed a few weeks ago. His novel adventures include John Macnab, The Dancing Floor and The Gap in the Curtain.

Sick Heart River (sometimes known by the title Mountain Meadow in the USA) was first published in 1941, given to a world beset by World War Two. The shadow of that war hangs over this book, though it’s not in any way a novel of war.

John Buchan, in his role as Governor-General, had signed Canada’s declaration of war in September 1939, at a time when he would have been writing this book.

Buchan hated war and Sick Heart River gives a strong feeling of his known world falling apart.

He died, suddenly, in February 1940, just days after completing Sick Heart River and his autobiography Memory Hold the Door. But he had been in poor health for quite a time and much of this is reflected in the plight of his hero Ned Leithen.

Sick Heart River will never be our favourite Buchan read, but it is, in both our opinion, the finest book he ever wrote – a literary masterpiece.

It is also a book of admiration for the Canada he’d come to know and love during his five years as Governor-General, with wonderfully descriptive passages about the arctic and the people who struggle to survive there.

Sick Heart River is a novel about confronting death – something we all have to do and the prospect must have been very much on Buchan’s mind. In his early essay Scholar Gipsies, written when the author was probably not twenty years old, he writes of a friend dying of a slow disease, probably tuberculosis. A man who rather than succumbing to the traditional death bed, takes to foot to face death standing in the hills of the Scottish Borders.

“Face death standing” – the expression comes from a Roman emperor, Vespasian; in fact Buchan puts the quote in to Leithen’s thoughts in his novel – “He would die standing, as Vespasian said an emperor should.”

Leithen, survivor of so many dangerous situations, now faces death himself. Weakened by a gas attack in the Great War, he has tuberculosis. The health and strength he prided in having have fled. He is weakened, debilitated, and has just months to live.

Rather like the character in that early essay, Leithen decides to face death standing – to have one last adventure.

He is approached by the American John S. Blenkiron, a favourite Buchan character of ours, to seek out the missing Francis Galliard, a French Canadian banker in New York, who has walked away from his life and disappeared in the north of Canada. Taking a long journey, first to America and then on to Quebec, Leithen trails Galliard and his guide Lew Frizel into the great wilderness of the arctic.

This is not just a book about physical decline but about mental strain as well. Lew Frizel is obsessed with finding the Sick Heart River, a place that should be paradise but turns out to be anything but. It becomes clear that, in his obsession, Lew Frizel has abandoned Galliard. Finding both now becomes the task of both Leithen and Lew Frizel’s brother Johnny.

How they find them and what the quest does to them all is the theme of the novel. As Leithen progresses through a landscape of freezing ice and snow his health improves, he gets back his strength and his will to live. He begins to plan a quiet old age with the shadow of death removed? But is his escape from mortality realistic?

There are, in this novel, some of the finest descriptions of landscapes in Buchan.  His knowledge of the north came both from an official trip in 1937 along the Mackenzie River and the far north experiences of his son Johnnie who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

But the arctic, rather like the valley of the Sick Heart River, is not portrayed as a paradise. The North is given to us as a place of peril and decay, where the native Hare Indians are themselves sick and indolent – so mentally exhausted that they no longer want to bother to even save themselves by finding food and drink.

So Leithen, having achieved the first part of his quest, devotes his recovering strength to saving the Hares from themselves, providing them with food and shelter and giving them a reason to go on living. But there is a price to be paid for such magnanimity.

Sick Heart River is a novel of adventure as well as spiritual quest. A tale of a dying man making his soul and discovering what his life has been all about. But it is not in the least morbid. It is very much a tale of hope. A novel to make you think and consider what life should be all about.

Buchan projects his characters into the spring of 1940 – a spring the author was destined never to experience himself. Cut off from civilisation for many months, Leithen learns that the dreaded war has begun.

It’s interesting to me that many of the first readers of Sick Heart River, facing the prospect of death on a massive scale, must have dwelt on the same questions about mortality as Ned Leithen.

Buchan’s greatest novel has a message for us all.

 

 

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The Third William Quest Novel

I’m now writing the third book featuring my series character William Quest, which hopefully will be out at the end of the year. Quest will find himself a long way from London fighting against new enemies and even greater dangers in York, one of England’s oldest cities.

York amd Marston Moor 002

York Minster which plays a significant part in the new Quest novel

In the London novels (see below) Quest had the advantage over his enemies of knowing every street and alley. But York is new to him, so he’s disadvantaged from the start. And it is in York’s winding medieval streets and snickets that he faces a particular and menacing foe.

As York is one of our favourite places, I’m very much enjoying setting a book there. It’s a wonderful setting for a mystery adventure.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, do please click on the links. They’re both out in paperback and on the Kindle eBook reader for your smartphone, Kindle or laptop – just download the free app when you order the books. And if you have read the books and enjoyed them, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave a quick review on the Amazon sales pages.

Leaving reviews helps all Indie Authors stay in business and keep writing. 

Please do tell your friends and fellow readers. Word of mouth is the very best form of advertising.

 

 

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