Monthly Archives: January 2015

Joyce Porter’s Chief Inspector Dover Novels

Back in the 1970s I had the great pleasure of discovering Joyce Porter’s detective novels featuring Chief Inspector Dover. Even then I never saw them in a bookshop. Joyce Porter was one of many wonderful ‘finds’ from my local library. Always on the return shelf and eagerly awaited by those in the know, sadly many fine crime novelists never achieved wider fame. Now thanks to e-readers and the Bello imprint readers can enjoy Joyce Porter’s work again.

Comic novel-writing is a difficult trick to pull off, compared to writing for television. Even the most accomplished scriptwriters, Ronnie Barker for instance, had a lot of help from visual humour and his own impeccable delivery. A series of funny detective novels sounds unlikely but Joyce Porter’s novels are guaranteed to make you smile and like all good writers the finished work seems effortless.

Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover of the Yard is a one-off. Portrayed as vividly as one of Dickens’s grotesques, Dover is a fat, gluttonous, slovenly, lazy, selfish, sponging, bad-tempered, sometimes menacing, hypochondriac. But enough of his good points. Whenever a Chief Constable requests the aid of Scotland Yard – that fictional convention universally used – Dover is first choice to be foisted on some unsuspecting local force to get him out of his superiors’ way. He spends his time between meals complaining bitterly, having forty winks, insulting the locals and loading work on his long-suffering sidekick, Sergeant Charles Edward MacGregor.

Sergeant MacGregor is a complete contrast to Dover, young, elegant, courteous and ambitious. He spends his time trying to get Dover to do some investigating, smoothing things over and mentally composing desperate requests for a transfer. He likes to follow up leads on his own, hoping to solve the case but is thwarted by Dover not wanting him to get any credit.

These are not city novels. They focus on the goings-on in small towns or villages with a vicar, spinsters, formidable matrons, peppery colonels and other characters familiar from the Golden Age. However the settings are considerably less appealing than St Mary Mead. Joyce Porter has a wonderful eye for people’s foibles and the character sketches are still instantly recognisable.

As well as being very funny, the novels have adroitly plotted murder mysteries. The solutions are unpredictable and satisfying. Dover attained his rank somehow and when prodded to work, his shrewd cunning always solves the case before Sergeant MacGregor. You can’t help liking him and perhaps part of his appeal is that he isn’t ‘politically correct’. Occasionally I’m reminded of him by the pithy sayings of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel or Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond.

The first novel Dover One was published in 1964. They are now social history with their snapshot of daily life in England in the 1960s. A vanished age when pubs were shut in the afternoons, country railway stations had porters and there was nothing to do on Sunday.
If you like Colin Watson’s delightfully quirky Flaxborough Chronicles, you may well enjoy seeking out Chief Inspector Dover.

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Night and the City by Gerald Kersh

Until recently, Night and the City was only known to me as a classic film noir set in London and starring Richard Widmark – one of the very best of that genre. I’ll return to the film version in a future blog. There is a later film version starring Robert De Niro, where the story is relocated to New York. I haven’t seen it so can’t comment, though I know a lot of people feel it to be inferior to the Widmark version.

I had never read the novel by Gerald Kersh, though it’s well known that the screenwriter of the Widmark film abandoned most of the plot, lots of the characters, and that the film company more or less paid Kersh for the evocative title.

There is a splendid edition of the book now published by London Books with an excellent, atmospheric and very informative introduction by John King. I really recommend that this is the edition that you seek out – not least because it is beautifully produced.

It is one of the finest novels about London, and in particularly the Soho district in the 1930s I have ever read. It is not a crime novel per se, though many of the characters operate on the fringes of the underworld. It is a lowlife novel, with characters whose lives are hopeless and tragic. The anti-hero Harry Fabian is one of life’s losers. A cockney who wants to get on, who pretends very often to be an American, with a bad imitation of the accent, on the grounds that it might impress others. Harry is a ponce (a pimp in modern parlance), a blackmailer, an entrepreneur of the crooked Soho world, who simply cannot compete with real existence in that great depression of the 1930s – the book is set in the period immediately before the coronation of King George VI.

Harry tries to get on, but every enterprise seems doomed to failure. He takes up one thing after another, but fails because he gets bored too easily and can’t persist with anything. He seems destined for a tragic end and, in a way, gets one. But not the end you might expect.
Every aspect of lowlife Soho is covered. Characters run dubious night-clubs, women are lured into working as hostesses and worse just in order to survive. There is a wonderful demonstration of the growth of fixed all-in wrestling matches at the time, and one of the best fight scenes in literature.

But this is almost, as we would say today, a docudrama. Kersh is clearly writing from his own great personal knowledge of this world, with the same vividness for social observation that you get in the writings of George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton.

Night and the City is not an easy read. It shows aspects of London life that we all know are there, but try not to think about, with an array of characters that make Kersh a kind of twentieth-century Dickens – Nosseros, the night-club owner, Helen the hostess, Zoe and Vi, working girls with a doubtful future, Bert the Costermonger, who is an object lesson on how to survive on the right side of the law, the Black Strangler, a wrestler with an uncertain temper.

If you ever want to know what lowlife London was really like in the 1930s then Night and the City is the book to read. I know Soho quite well. There are aspects of Kersh’s depiction that are still valid today.

I hadn’t discovered Gerald Kersh until I read Night and the City. Now I shall seek out more of his work. His own life was fascinating, as you’ll see if you look him up online. The characters and settings of this novel could never have been “mugged up” – only someone with first-hand knowledge could have produced a literary work of such distinction.

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, with an introduction by John King. Published by London Books.

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Brian Clemens

Brian Clemens – Creator of The Avengers.

We felt we just had to pay our tribute to the screenwriter Brian Clemens, who died the other day at the age of 83.

Brian Clemens was a self-taught writer who sold his first short story at the age of twelve. After a period in advertising he went on to script some of the most iconic television series of the twentieth-century. He wrote the pilot for the spy series Danger Man (starring Patrick MacGoohan) He created The Avengers, that witty, exciting and occasionally camp series that seemed to define Sixties television, with its dashing English gentleman hero John Steed (played with style and relish by Patrick Macnee) and a series of women heroines such as Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) and Tara King (Linda Thorson). It started modestly with Ian Hendry, gradually evolving into the quirky and memorable series which is a fond part of the recollections of people of a certain age.

In the 1970s, Clemens created and wrote the Thriller series, each episode a one-off play with sinister characters and a twist ending. We’ve recently watched the series again and were impressed with the way it has held up. The series features a great many fine British actors and American guest stars. Well worth seeking out on DVD to watch on these dark evenings.

Brian Clemens contributed scripts to many British and American crime series, including Adam Adamant Lives!, Bergerac, The Champions, Diagnosis: Murder, The Protectors, The Persuaders, the American revival of Perry Mason and many more. He also wrote the amusing sit-com My Wife Next Door, about a divorced couple who end up living in adjoining cottages.

In the 1970s he created and wrote The Professionals, a fast-moving thriller series about the fictional law agency CI5, headed by George Cowley, played with great authority by Gordon Jackson, his first long part after playing Mr Hudson the butler in the original Upstairs Downstairs, with Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins as the field agents Doyle and Bodie.

There was also The New Avengers, reviving the character of John Steed with two new companions played by Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt. Fast-moving, even if it lacked the magic of the original.

There was scarce a thrilling TV series in the 1960s/70s that didn’t either boast a Clemens script or showed the influence of his writing.

Brian Clemens plays a hugely important part in the inclusion of thrillers and crime as a staple part of British television to this day. It is pleasing that so much of his work is available on DVD. Apart from our recent watching of Thriller, we have spent much of the past year watching original episodes of The Avengers. Do seek them out!

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Edward VIII, the Abdication and the Nazis

John Bainbridge writes: While I was writing “Balmoral Kill” I did a lot of research into the historical background of King Edward VIII’s links with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. I have now turned some of this research into an essay which you can read online at the English Historical Fiction Authors website. Do click and have a look.”

The link is:

http://l.facebook.com/l/KAQGZvzJ7AQHtIAcURRw7Jsz_8yRFbz2arwGCqej5-0wYVw/englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2015/01/edward-viii-abdication-and-nazis.html

 

 

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Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes

Just before Christmas I wrote about how much I admired the late Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, and the production values of this excellent television series. I thought it might be interesting to look at Brett’s Sherlock Holmes in more depth.

To me, Brett is the definitive Sherlock. To my mind he brings to the part all of the often subtle moods that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intended for his character. He can be playful and humorous, traits that are there in the stories, but neglected by many actors. We see the boredom of Holmes when he has no case to work on, the lethargy that comes with boredom, depression and drug addiction. No, addiction is the wrong word. Holmes only succumbs to his seven per. cent solution of cocaine when the game is not afoot!

Jeremy Brett often demonstrates the impatience of the character he plays here. Watch the wave of his hand as he dismisses witnesses to a case, when they have told him all he needs to know to solve the problem he is grappling with. Observe the expression on his face as he considers the matter in hand. And the delicious smile of satisfaction as he solves each conundrum.

Acting is not just about pulling faces. Jeremy Brett’s performance always make you think that the expressions come about because he is pondering the very thoughts that Sherlock would have in his mind. The way he reacts to other actors is an object lesson in the art of acting. Reaction is a huge part of the performer’s art. Note the fun Brett’s Sherlock has with Watson when he is in a playful mood. Note also the impatience that he tries so hard to conceal when Watson is slow on the uptake.

If you haven’t read the Holmes stories for a while, it is tempting to think of Holmes as just some gigantic brain. But that is to lose half of the character’s qualities. Holmes can be indolent without a problem to solve. But when he needs to he can show a huge energy and physicality. Brett portrays this in a remarkable way. Often dashing around the scenes of a crime or leaping over the furniture in Baker Street. The Holmes of the stories is often quite prepared to get his hands dirty, often getting into fights with his opponents. He is, Conan Doyle tells us, a student of the Japanese wrestling system of Baritsu (an error by the author, this method of unarmed combat is actually called Bartitsu and was devised by an Englishman J.C. Barton-Wright).

Jeremy Brett brings out this side of Holmes with great aplomb, look for example at the fist fight in The Solitary Cyclist or how he wrestles with Eric Porter as Moriarty on the rocky crags above the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem.

And then there is the awkwardness of Holmes when dealing with women. Jeremy Brett leaves us in no doubt that his Sherlock is quite bewitched by Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia, and yet – through quite a stunning piece of acting – shows that there is nothing sexual about his feelings towards her. It is more a total admiration of one human being for another, a meeting of equals, the sex is irrelevant.

And there are the touching scenes in The Master Blackmailer, where Holmes – in disguise – has to court Charles Augustus Milverton’s housemaid. When she returns his affection and tries to kiss him, Brett brings out a bewilderment that is not just touching but almost heartbreaking. Sherlock Holmes finds himself in a situation he simply cannot deal with, and Brett makes a feeling of great loneliness emanate from the character.

Jeremy Brett is probably never better than in that scene, where he has to be Sherlock Holmes disguised as someone who has emotions that Holmes himself can hardly contemplate. It is almost a double performance as both Holmes and the character he is pretending to be are emotionally wrestling with each other. When the housemaid asks for a kiss Holmes replies, in a voice of utter despair and bafflement, ‘I don’t know how!’ I doubt that any actor who has ever played Sherlock Holmes could have delivered the line with such pathos as Jeremy Brett. If you want to see real acting watch that scene!

I will return to some other aspects of this fine series in blogs to come. But just now I would like to salute the composer of the theme music, Patrick Gowers, who died a little while ago. His atmospheric music, often slightly altered to suit each story, is quite wonderful!

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