Colin Dexter’s “The Wench is Dead”

Following Colin Dexter’s death earlier this week, we thought we’d continue our tribute to his Inspector Morse novels by re-blogging our look at The Wench is Dead.

The television version of the Inspector Morse mysteries, with the forceful central performance by John Thaw, had overshadowed the original novels in my mind. I hadn’t read any of the books for quite a time. We watched the TV version of The Wench is Dead the other night, so I thought this was an appropriate time to revisit the novel.The Wench is Dead (Inspector Morse Series Book 8) by [Dexter, Colin]

It’s an unusual book, for the crime is the murder of a woman on the Oxford Canal in 1859. Inspector Morse, hospitalised with a stomach ulcer, is given a book about this old crime, is intrigued, and begins to believe that the crime didn’t actually happen as described. With the help of the faithful Sergeant Lewis, a nurse, and a librarian, Morse investigates the crime.

Now, the idea of a present-day detective investigating an ancient crime isn’t exactly new. Josephine Tey used a hospitalised detective, Alan Grant, to investigate the guilt or innocence of Richard III in The Daughter of Time.

I have a great interest in the history of the British canals. I’ve ancestors who worked on them, and they were a staple of my childhood. Now, the surviving canals are mostly used by leisure craft, but in my childhood there were still working narrow boats, many towing butty boats full of coal. The people who worked the canals were quite wonderful. I used to cadge lifts on their boats.

Their world was not so different from that depicted so lovingly and accurately by Colin Dexter. The Victorian boatmen lived a rough life and were viewed with considerable suspicion by the land-bound.

I also have a great interest in Victorian crime, and it’s fascinating to re-examine the evidence on which men and women were convicted. There’s no doubt that the Victorian legal system was flawed against the defendant. At the period of Dexter’s novel, they were not even allowed to appear in court in their own defence. There’s no doubt that a great many innocent men and women were unjustly hanged.

These legal points form an important part of the way the story of The Wench is Dead is resolved, and it’s fascinating stuff. Dexter has a great skill in re-creating the extremely unfair world of Victorian jurisprudence.

It’s a terrific book which well-deserved winning the CWA Golden Dagger as Crime Novel of the Year. Well worth a read.

The television version scripted by the novelist Malcolm Bradbury, (a professor at the University of East Anglia when I was doing my degree there) takes considerable liberties with Dexter’s original. Sergeant Lewis is missing, his place taken by a rookie cop. There’s a couple of love interests for Morse. Interesting departures from the original, and the film is very entertaining. The 1859 sequences are superbly presented. But a lot of the intimacy of Dexter’s novel is lost. John Thaw was on great form as Inspector Morse.

Do watch the film, it’s very worthwhile, but enjoy the beautifully written novel as well.

 

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Colin Dexter R.I.P.

We were very saddened to hear of the death today of Colin Dexter, at the age of 86.

His Inspector Morse novels were a considerable addition to crime literature, always wonderfully readable with great characterisation and superb plots.

They led, of course, to the much-loved television series with the late John Thaw, which was essential viewing for so many years. Colin Dexter’s Hitchcock-style brief appearances in each episode were always eagerly awaited.

Colin Dexter has left a wonderful legacy for all lovers of detective fiction.

 

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Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

Out of the 1970s came a series of what I call journalist thrillers, written with a considerable realism and usually by writers who’d been reporters. Perhaps the most famous example is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the JackalProduct Details

One of the very best is Gerald Seymour’s Harry’s Game, set mostly in Belfast during the Troubles of the mid 1970s, at a time when the warfare between the British Army,  the security services  and the IRA  was at its height.

Gerald Seymour was a reporter on the streets of Belfast at the time and it shows.

To pull off this sort of gritty realism you really need to have walked those troubled streets and estates of Belfast – the Falls Road, the Shankill, the Ardoyne, the Ballymurphy… Seymour did and you can feel the gripping fear that beset these places at the time in every page of  Harry’s Game – these aren’t experiences that can be faked. You need to have been there.

Interestingly, the violence level in Harry’s Game is not over-excessive. Characters are beaten and shot but it never goes beyond that. Harry’s Game is not as graphically violent as many a more modern thriller.

Gerald Seymour achieves menace by the tenseness of the writing, the dangers of men having to live double lives in hostile environments. Undercover work is rarely as well presented as here.

Harry’s Game begins with the assassination of a British cabinet minister by an IRA gunman, Billy Downes, who after the shooting returns to his home in Belfast. On the direct orders of the Prime Minister, and without telling the army or most of the security services, a section of British Intelligence decides to place an agent in Belfast to discover the identity of the assassin.

They use Harry Brown, an army captain of Irish ancestry, who’s previously lived undercover in the Middle East and had a subsequent breakdown. Harry moves into a boarding house off the Falls Road, posing as a merchant seaman with republican sympathies.

Meanwhile Billy Downes tries to sink back into his former life with his wife and children, though brought out at one point to kill a soldier.

There is a kind of parallel between Harry Brown and Billy Downes. Both work undercover for their respective armies. Both are fearful of discovery. Both are under enormous pressure as the people hunting them down get ever closer. Both are victims of a tragic conflict and are neither good nor bad in themselves.

This very well-crafted book was Gerald Seymour’s first novel, though it doesn’t come over as anything but skilled. For sheer suspense it’s hard to beat. I think it captures Belfast very well at that moment in time. Reading it again, now, and remembering those days, it’s all the more remarkable that, politically, Northern Ireland has moved on so much.

The book’s tragic ending still has the power to shock.

 

 

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Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers

What are Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers?

In my blog on Kellow Chesney’s book The Victorian Underworld I mentioned a few of the underworld’s “technical terms”. Kellow Chesney gives a very comprehensive list at the back of his book, but I think it’s only fair to give an explanation of the ones I mentioned.

They would have been very familiar terms to the characters in our books, and – certainly as far as William Quest goes – many of the characters in that series of books qualify to be included under one or more of these terms.

So here goes:

Magsmen – well basically a cheat or a sharper of the lowest kind – the sort who’d probably try and cheat you in a pub or out on the street. They’re still around so watch out!

Macers – Macers play the same sort of game as magsmen but at a slightly higher level. Think con-artist in modern terms and you’re more or less there.

Gonophs – gonophs are minor thieves and often the less skilled sort of pickpockets. Poverty drove many Victorians to crime in this way. My character William Quest starts his life on the streets as a gonoph, but becomes more skilled as time goes by.

Shofulmen – These individuals were purveyors of bad money. Not uncommon in the earlier decades of the century.

Screevers – Although it became an occasional name for pavement artists, the original screevers were writers of fake testimonials – quite a handy vocation in Victorian times when you might need a phony reference, especially if you’d been dismissed by your employer without a character. My character Jasper Feedle partakes in screeving amongst his other many talents.

If you want to enter the dangerous Victorian Underworld do seek out Kellow Chesney’s book – or if you want to walk the dangerous alleys of Victorian London do try my William Quest novels…

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The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

If any one book inspired me to write my William Quest Victorian thrillers it’s this one, Kellow Chesney’s very readable and scholarly book on the Victorian underworld. It was first published in 1970 and – for me – is the standard work on this fascinating subject.Victorian Underworld: Chesney, Kellow

I first encountered it when I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Although I majored in literature, I did a minor in nineteenth-century social history. The underworld was only a small part of my studies, but discovering Kellow Chesney’s book sent me of on a wider reading programme, both in secondary reading and the primary sources.

When I’m asked to recommend a book on the Victorian underworld this is the one I suggest as a first read. There are several other titles I like – and I hope to give these a mention on the blog in the coming months – but Kellow Chesney’s book is the most comprehensive and the best introduction.

It’s all here, starting with a walk through the mid-century streets of London – and how vividly the author portrays the place. This is no dull work of scholarship, it’s a page-turner as exciting as all the best mystery thrillers.

Then from the main streets frequented by the richest members of society, Kellow Chesney takes the reader to the borders of the underworld, the places where the dispossessed and those forced into crime to survive are obliged to lurk – and the boundaries between the rookeries and the smart streets of society are often back to back.

We are then taken on a journey into the rookeries themselves. Kellow Chesney conjures them up in all their awfulness. It is impossible to understand the Victorian criminal underworld unless you can understand the causes of crime.

Here are the beggars, the pick-pockets, the footpads and the swell mob. The skilled cracksmen who break the safes and steal the jewellery of the richest members of society. Here are the magsmen, gonophs, macers and shofulmen. The screevers and the Newgate mob. (I’ll talk more about these in a blog early next week.)

There were perhaps 80000 prostitutes in Victorian London alone. Kellow Chesney deals sympathetically with their plight, whether they were working the poorest streets in the East End for pennies or selling themselves for much more in the night houses in the West End.

The book is wonderfully illustrated, mostly with the sketches of the great Gustave Dore, adding to the feeling of being there so brilliantly evoked in Mr Chesney’s words. If you can, seek out one of the original hardback editions – the pictures are not so well reproduced in the paperback editions.

When I came to write William Quest, Kellow Chesney’s book was the first I re-read. If you want a good understanding of the Victorian underworld, I commend it to you.

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March 5, 2017 · 10:59 am

‘Magpie Murders’ by Anthony Horowitz

This is the first novel I’ve read by Anthony Horowitz though I loved his television drama ‘Foyle’s War’ and enjoyed his scriptwriting for ‘Midsomer Murders’. So I came to ‘Magpie Murders’, knowing only that there’d been masses of glowing reviews when it came out last year (in 2016). Well, the short version is – here’s another one. Magpie Murders by [Horowitz, Anthony]

I loved ‘Magpie Murders’ and think it’s one of the best new crime novels I’ve found in the last couple of years. (I re-read a lot of old favourites). For anyone who loves Agatha Christie and Golden Age detection, this is an outstanding treat – full of ingenuity and flair – and much more besides.

It isn’t easy to review this novel without giving away too much but these details are on the jacket copy. The story begins in the first person. Susan Ryeland, an editor at a small publishing house is settling down to read the manuscript of ‘Magpie Murders,’ their most famous author’s new detective novel. She’s a likeable, very human narrator, getting comfy with wine, snacks and cigarettes. Horowitz is very good at channelling believable female characters.

Within a couple of pages – and after a few cryptic remarks from Susan – we begin to read the detective novel, clearly delineated with a typewriter-style font. And there we stay until near its end. ‘Magpie Murders’, the manuscript, is a classic vintage murder mystery, set in the mid-fifties in that well-known fictional English village of ‘Mayhem Parva’. Where the sleepy streets are picturesque, the inhabitants seething with secrets and the gossip full of red herrings

Anthony Horowitz presents us with three mysteries; his contemporary ‘Magpie Murders,’ the fictional ‘Magpie Murders’ within his novel and the hidden narrative within the manuscript. You certainly get value for money and this is not one to read in bed as you’re nodding off. Not that you’d want to, as it’s too engrossing. Some reviewers have likened this device to a Russian doll. It reminded me of one of those intricate Oriental puzzle boxes where pieces shift and slide to unlock the key. (We had one long ago, brought home by a Victorian sailor forebear).

The manuscript novel features a celebrated foreign private detective who works closely with Scotland Yard and bears more than a passing resemblance to Poirot. It’s fun to spot the many nods to Christie along the way. The sidekick is named Fraser, referencing Hugh Fraser of Captain Hastings fame. (Now an acclaimed crime novelist himself). Market Basing gets a mention, a town near St Mary Mead and so on.

I think the ‘acid test’ of the dual narrative format is that both parts have to be equally interesting. One of the best examples that comes to mind is John Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. In this, ‘Magpie Murders’ succeeds admirably.

The manuscript is very enjoyable and captures a real feeling of a 1950s detective novel of the best sort. Despite this, there are anachronisms and this is an example of Horowitz’s skill. I thought I spotted one early on when Downs Syndrome was mentioned. (I’m old enough to remember adults talking about ‘Mongol’ children, which was the usual expression in the 1960s). Then the penny dropped that the anachronisms were written by Alan Conway, the fictional author.

I don’t believe that any writer could pass off a perfect Christie imitation. But I suspect if Anthony Horowitz had been commissioned to write the Poirot continuation series, he would have done a good job. (Possibly something there  hidden in my text?).

We return to the present with Susan Ryeland when she realises that the last couple of chapters are missing from the manuscript. A great cliff-hanger, the rug is pulled just as you’re desperate to know whodunit. The remainder of the novel is as intriguing as the novel-within, as Susan turns detective to track down the missing pages and find out who murdered Alan Conway.

Well-paced to the end, the climax and the reveals are convincing and very satisfying. This is a triumph of intricate plotting, that’s written with great clarity. Important in such a complex structure. I’d be fascinated to know how long Anthony Horowitz took to plot this and how he went about it – it’s hard to believe he’s a ‘pantser’.

The writing is full of clever word-play that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. There’s a witty, sparkling air about ‘Magpie Murders’ that reads as though Horowitz was having fun and really enjoyed writing it. He clearly loves the Golden Age sub-genre, paying homage, while inverting and up-dating it at the same time.

Clear some blissful free time for this with a drink, possibly a snack, definitely your thinking cap. (Let’s ditch the cigarettes). A superb detective novel, not to be missed.

 

 

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The Holly House Mystery

Our latest novella, ‘The Holly House Mystery’ is on sale at only 99 pence/cents. Offer ends on the 6th March (early evening British time).

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.

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

 

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Sherlock Holmes: The Man with the Twisted Lip

Spoiler alert: We usually try not to give away the plots of the stories we look at, but it’s next to impossible not to with Sherlock Holmes’ short stories. I suspect most of you will have read the story. 

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories. It has a very vivid London setting and lots of those elements that plunge you back into the Victorian world of Holmes and Watson – menacing alleys, disguises, the sinister banks of the River Thames, Opium Dens etc.Twis-05.jpg

Holmes and Watson are at their best too, though I always believe the great detective is having a bit of an off day in his field of expertise, given how long it takes him to work out the only obvious solution to the puzzle – that Neville St Clair is the beggar Hugh Boone.

Who cares? Just to plunge into the murky world of Victorian London in the company of Holmes and Watson is enough for me. There is the added bonus that you get a glimpse of Watson’s home life in the company of the first Mrs Watson, though – like everyone – I’m puzzled that she calls her husband James instead of John at one point. You might like to comment your thoughts on that – whole essays have been written on what most suspect is an authorial slip.

Doyle wrote these stories for the Strand at a fair speed and such slips are not uncommon when a deadline is looming.

There is a worse slip elsewhere in the story. When Holmes and Watson visit the Kent home of Mrs St Clair, she asks that the detective tells her the worst – “I am not hysterical or given to fainting”, she says. But earlier in the tale, she has told Holmes that she fainted on  seeing blood on the window of the opium den in Upper Swandam Lane.

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of the earliest of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, first published in The Strand magazine in December 1891. It was Doyle’s sixteenth favourite of his personal top nineteen Holmes stories. Interesting too, that it doesn’t actually feature a crime, though I suspect in reality, Hugh Boone and his alias might have been prosecuted for wasting police time and probably for begging as well.

The opium den and Upper Swandam Lane are wonderfully drawn. I once spent a happy morning in London seeking the location from the geographical details given by Doyle. Of course there’s nothing resembling the place in existence now, though not far away is a set of steps set in Victorian or earlier London Brick leading down to the swirling waters of the Thames. On finding them, my imagination swirled as much as the river.

At some point, every Victorian crime novel series should feature an opium den, and Doyle’s is one of the best in literature, menacing but quite accurate. There are, going off at a tangent, a couple of other good ones in literature. Sax Rohmer gives us a glorious one in The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, and Charles Dickens opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood in just such a place. Opium was legal at the time – in fact the British Empire and its entrepreneurs made a fortune and fought a couple of wars out of the trade. Opium dens, which were often a front for other crimes, were perfectly lawful as well.

I like Doyle’s description of Upper Swandam Lane as a ‘vile alley’: so much atmosphere in two words. I confess to borrowing them to describe an alley in my own recent Victorian crime novel Deadly Quest. I put in an opium den for good measure as well!

Neville St Clair as Hugh Boone is not the only disguised person in the story. Holmes makes his first appearance in the Bar of Gold opium den as an addict, though he swears to Watson that he didn’t actually participate – hard though surely not to inhale in such a place.

London itself becomes almost a character in the story, the streets and alleys around the north side of the Thames vividly drawn. All the more remarkable when you recall that Doyle was a relative newcomer to the city when he penned these early Sherlock Holmes stories.

There was a silent film version of The Man with the Twisted Lip as early as 1921. More recent television versions include the BBC Douglas Wilmer version of 1964 – I almost certainly saw that as a child, as I was a fan, but I remember nothing about it.

More recently there was a very good adaptation in the Granada Television series The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Clive Francis (best known as Francis Poldark in the first and superior version of Poldark) as Neville St Clair/Hugh Boone.

The latter is a superb version, even if Mrs Watson was written out of the programme concept. Upper Swandam Lane is vividly depicted, as is the Bar of Gold opium den. The casting of the small parts is very well done and Alan Plater’s script gets a real feeling for the original story.

Clive Francis makes a splendid Hugh Boone, throwing out his beggar’s repartee at the police and showing the charm that made him such a successful beggar. His quotations from Shakespeare and other poets seem so integral that I’d forgotten that they’re not actually part of Boone’s repertoire in the story. I believe the idea of having Boone acquainted with literature in this way was first trialled in the Douglas Wilmer version.

The transformation of Boone into St Clair is done to great effect. The urbane and civilised St Clair in the interview with Holmes and the Bow Street police which follows, demonstrates the considerable range of Clive Francis’ acting ability – a masterful performance.

A great Sherlock Holmes story – one I never tire of reading. A masterpiece of short story writing.

 

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The Language of the Dead by Stephen Kelly

The Language of the Dead, published in 2015, is the first in a series by American author, Stephen Kelly. I’ve read very little crime fiction set in the Second World War, though I enjoyed the detective drama series Foyle’s War. However I was intrigued by the synopsis saying that the main character, Chief Inspector Thomas Lamb, was still haunted by his time in the trenches.

The Language of the Dead: A World War II Mystery by [Kelly, Stephen]

The novel is set in the summer of 1940, where the murder takes place in a village in Hampshire. The setting had me hooked as I grew up in a small Hampshire village. It’s a county that’s not often used in crime fiction – although on television, Hampshire provided the locations for St Mary Mead, (real life Nether Wallop) and Chief Inspector Wexford’s Kingsmarkham (Romsey).

I enjoyed The Language of the Dead very much, despite a couple of issues I’ll come to later. Crucially important, I really liked the three leading detectives. They alone make me want to read the second in the series. Chief Inspector Lamb is an appealing character, a happily married, family man, deeply affected – twenty-two years on – by his experiences in the First World War. A fair man who takes his job seriously.

His side-kick Sergeant Wallace has his own problems and is the focus of a well-written sub-plot with a noir-like feel. The author made me ‘see’ those particular scenes like a black and white film. When the third of an uneasy trio is introduced, Inspector Rivers is a figure from Lamb’s past. This debut novel sets the scene for some interesting development in future titles. Stephen Kelly’s characters and their motivations are very believable.

The plot concerns the bizarre murder of an old man, while he was hedging on farmland. As the author mentions on his website, this was partly inspired by a real unsolved murder which took place in Warwickshire in 1945. Inspector Lamb’s daughter is the village A.R.P. warden.

Stephen Kelly is good at catching the atmosphere of rural southern England thrust into the desperate summer of the Battle of Britain. Traditional village life with its lingering superstitions is shown changed almost overnight by R.A.F. camps, gun emplacements, rations and the blackout. Everyone is nightly watching the sky where the flames of Southampton and Portsmouth can be seen. The villagers are already tense and fearful before they have a murderer among them.

Because Stephen Kelly writes so well, I was disappointed that he didn’t convey any real feeling of Hampshire. I’ve no problem with adjusting the map – that’s necessary for writers and we certainly do that in our own novels – but most writers keep an authentic atmosphere of place. I’d have liked some description of the fictional village of Quimby and the old cathedral city of Winchester, home to the detectives’ police station. The sparse details we do get are inaccurate, Hampshire doesn’t go in for glens or stone-built villages.

But the main jarring factor for me, was the constant use of Americanisms and sometimes lack of knowledge of British ways. Part of me feels mean saying this but American terms ‘jolt’ me out of the British fictional world that’s been created. It seems fashionable among American authors to write historic crime fiction set in England and I do understand the attraction and difficulties. I enjoy Charles Todd’s period crime novels but sometimes find the same problem. 

Despite these caveats there was so much I enjoyed about The Language of the Dead. I will read the second book The Wages of Desire and look forward to finding out more about the series’ characters.

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