Monthly Archives: January 2016

Francis Durbridge’s “Melissa”

Melissa By Francis Durbridge

 
One of our Christmas DVD treats was Francis Durbridge’s mystery drama Melissa, which was televised in 1974. Starring that very fine actor Peter Barkworth, it was in three parts and we watched over three weeks to get the original effect. Although we both remember seeing it when it was broadcast, luckily we didn’t recall more than the premise.

Guy Foster is an unemployed Fleet Street journalist who’s writing a novel. When he comes home one evening, his wife Melissa and their friends Paula and Felix are waiting to go to a party. Guy’s forgotten they’re going out and cries off as he’s tired. The others leave without him. Later that evening Melissa telephones him and persuades him to meet her at the home of another guest. When Guy stops at a police car to ask directions, he hears that a woman’s body has just been found. To his horror the corpse is Melissa.

From that moment Guy’s world disintegrates as he’s under suspicion for his wife’s murder. A baffling series of events seem to show that he’s been expertly framed as he struggles to find the truth before he’s arrested. The plot is full of the dazzling twists and cliff-hangers that were Francis Durbridge’s trademark. Guy starts to wonder just how well he knew his wife and who is out to destroy him?

Peter Barkworth was superb in a role that’s akin to Hitchcock with its innocent-in-peril theme. He was always one of my favourite actors, effortlessly natural and completely believable. He taught many distinguished actors at R.A.D.A and wrote several books about acting.

The supporting cast are also very good, including Moira Redmond, Joan Benham, Ronald Fraser and Ray Lonnen. Philip Voss is quietly compelling as the enigmatic police inspector.

Much of the drama takes place in the Fosters’ London flat which gives the feeling of watching a stage play and adds to the tense atmosphere. Melissa feels like a masterclass in acting and the scriptwriting of suspense. And it’s a great pleasure to see actors from television’s golden age of drama.

This was the second version of Melissa, the first was televised in 1964. Francis Durbridge then adapted his script into a novel – something he often did -published as My Wife Melissa three years later. In a prolific career Durbridge (1912-98) wrote forty-three novels, some in collaboration, seven stage plays and umpteen radio, film and television scripts. His most famous character was of course Paul Temple, closely followed by Tim Frazer.

Melissa is highly recommended and we’re looking forward to getting more of Francis Durbridge’s surviving dramas. It’s a sad loss that so many tapes were wiped by the BBC in the Sixties.

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The Herring Seller’s Apprentice by L.C.Tyler

This hugely enjoyable detective novel is the first of five books featuring Ethelred Tressider and Elsie Thirkettle. The intriguing title comes from the fact that Ethelred makes his living from setting out red herrings. He’s a fairly obscure crime novelist, juggling three series under pen names and Elsie is his wisecracking literary agent.

When Ethelred’s former wife is found murdered near his Sussex home, Elsie is keen they should investigate. After all, Ethelred’s had plenty of practice on paper and she’s incorrigibly nosy– how hard can it be?

Both leads are a delight to read. Ethelred is slightly out of step with modern life, a tweeds or panama sort of chap and very much his own man. Elsie’s sardonic, unimpressed by writers and needs a constant supply of chocolate to inspire her sleuthing.

I like the way the pair narrate different parts of the novel when it feels appropriate, not in alternate chapters. Their voices are distinctive with witty dialogue and wonderful asides on life. It’s a clever device to show two very different takes on certain scenes. The chapters fit together as intricately as jigsaw pieces and are very funny. L.C Tyler is very good at writing the way women think – and you could do worse than take Elsie’s advice.

The plot is gripping, full of quirky suspects and sly jokes about the world of crime-writing. There’s a lot of interest to be had in working out who may or may not be an unreliable narrator. Elsie’s loyalty to Ethelred is never in doubt, even though she’s the kind of friend who shoots from the hip and is always thinking of her agent’s percentage.

I know Findon, the village where Ethelred lives in the novel. L.C Tyler describes the landscape on the edge of the South Downs very well.

Although set in the present day, the Ethelred and Elsie novels have the feeling of a top-class entertainment from the Golden Age. The kind where there’s next to no gore and the emphasis is on a clever puzzle delivered with elegance and style. I have a suspicion that although L.C Tyler makes his sparkling prose look effortless, it takes a huge amount of talent and hard work to achieve that.

The story builds to a terrific, satisfying finale which had me going straight on to the next novel Ten Little Herrings. Something I rarely do but like Elsie and her chocolate, I simply had to have another fix.

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The Seafront Corpse

Our new detective novel is now out in paperback and on eBook for Kindle and Nook eReaders – Kobo to follow soon.

THE SEAFRONT CORPSEA view of Clevedon Pier in Somerset, England
A 1930s detective on England’s south coast …

Inspector Eddie Chance – Edgar if you want to annoy him – is nobody’s fool, if inclined to be lazy. Newly promoted, he’s looking forward to a quiet life back in his home town.

In March 1931 the Sussex seaside resort of Tennysham is starting to get spruced up for Easter and the first day-trippers.

When a body is found on the promenade, Inspector Chance’s troubles are just about to start…

To order either the paperback or the Kindle edition just click on the link below. And if you buy the paperback and have a Kindle account you can download the Kindle edition as well for free…

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The Hill of the Red Fox

The Hill of the Red Fox
By Allan Campbell McLean

Many years ago, when I was a child, long before I ever visited or walked on the Isle of Skye, I felt I knew it quite well through the exciting thrillers of the novelist Allan Campbell McLean.

This author has, and not without some justification, been compared to the great John Buchan. Both told yarns of innocents in peril, both tended to narrate their novels in the first person, and both wrote present-day and historical stories. As a great admirer of Buchan, I feel that Allan Campbell McLean books belong on a nearby shelf.

The only difference is that Allan Campbell McLean wrote for a younger audience. But the best children’s books can be enjoyed as much by an adult. This author’s work certainly can. In addition to several thrillers he wrote three very fine historical novels set during the Highland Clearances.

He also wrote an adult novel The Glasshouse, based on his own experiences in a military prison during World War Two. This latter was banned from publication in the United States. I read it many years ago. A classic work of literature. The resistance to the book probably sent the author towards writing the books for which he is best known.

“The Hill of the Red Fox” (1955) was the first of Allan Campbell McLean’s Skye thrillers. It’s a novel set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s, and is one of the best in this crowded genre.

Alasdair, who has led a sheltered life in London, beset with romantic dreams of his Scottish heritage, is sent to stay on the Isle of Skye, in a farming croft that belonged to his late father. The croft is now being run by the dour Murdo Beaton, with the help of his mother and young daughter Mairi. Alasdair doesn’t get a very warm welcome on his arrival.

And even before he gets there he has had a mysterious encounter on the train to the Highlands – rather like Richard Hannay’s railway journey in Buchan’s “The Thirty-nine Steps”. Alasdair is passed a message by a desperate spy who jumps the train, a villain in hot pursuit.

On Skye, Alasdair meets a number of friends of his late father, including Duncan Mor, a crofter and sometime poacher who takes Alasdair under his wing. Allan Campbell McLean’s depictions of Skye and crofting life, the ways of the shepherd, the peat-cutting, the weather in the mountains, are both beautifully lyrical and realistic. When I first visited Skye in 1997, I could recognise so much from my memories of this author.

I’m not going to give any of the plot away, for this is a thriller well worth seeking out – and having read all of Allan Campbell McLean’s novels I can say now that there isn’t a duff one among them – but I will look at some general themes.

Apart from the very accurate depiction of Skye, “The Hill of the Red Fox” portrays very beautifully the friendship between Duncan Mor and Alasdair. Having lost his own father and been brought up by a mother and aunt, Alasdair finds a father-figure in the crofter. He’s taught the real ways of Scotland – far from the romantic Jacobite tosh of his reading matter. As the weeks on Skye pass by, Alasdair grows up.

And he has to, for he soon finds himself in a situation of incredible danger, his life threatened more than once. Allan Campbell McLean is particularly good at portraying hurried journeys, night-time assignations, the true nature of how to follow someone and the grip of fear in the stomach when you realise you are being followed yourself.

Alasdair finds himself in a situation where it becomes hard to know just who to trust as he tries to interpret the one clue he has – a slip of paper passed to him by the spy on the train which reads “Hunt at the Hill of the Red Fox”. The hill itself – Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh Ruaidh in the Gaelic – is easy to find, but its mystery, well…

The whole chase leads to a dramatic conclusion, with the kind of accurately portrayed action that any mainstream thriller writer would have been proud to have penned. Cold War espionage is very well done here, the mistrust and fear of a time that is now – unbelievably – sixty years ago.

Allan Campbell McLean’s books were to be seen regularly on bookshelves when I was young. “The Hill of the Red Fox” is still in print, both as a paperback and eBook. Sadly, some of his other classic writings seem to be out of print, though second-hand copies are readily available from the usual online sources.

But this is an author who writes with such great ability that he deserves to have all of his books available in good modern editions. I do hope that one of the publishing houses might do that, perhaps one of the enterprising Scottish publishers.

Allan Campbell McLean’s books should be there to be found by a new generation of young – and not so young – readers.

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The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.

The Moonstone is deservedly one of the most famous novels of the Victorian age and has never been out of print since it was first published in 1868. The story burst upon the reading public, serialised in thirty-two parts in Dickens’s weekly magazine All The Year Round. A novel in three volumes appeared later the same year.

The serial was originally scheduled to run for twenty-six issues but proved so popular that Collins extended the story. Hailed then and now as one of the greatest mid-Victorian sensation novels, T.S Eliot famously described The Moonstone as ‘the first, the longest and the best of the modern English detective novels.’ It is all that and much more.

The Moonstone offers a lot of reading pleasure in addition to a gripping mystery. It’s satirical, witty and wise about human nature. The narrative tells us a lot about life on a mid-nineteenth century country estate and reveals much about the author’s own dark experiences and compassionate views.

In the story the heroine Rachel Verinder is bequeathed a rare yellow diamond of fabulous quality on her eighteenth birthday. The jewel known as The Moonstone was looted by her uncle, an army officer, at the Storming of Seringapatam in 1799. The bequest may be a gesture of family reconciliation or more likely a malicious gift.

A trio of mysterious Indian jugglers are hanging around the Verinders’ Yorkshire estate, bringing a feeling of lurking menace. In the night after the birthday celebrations The Moonstone is stolen. When the local police are baffled, a detective from London is called in to solve the mystery – thus beginning a great crime novel tradition.

The passionate rose-grower Sergeant Cuff is one of the earliest literary detectives, a character as engaging and idiosyncratic in his way as Sherlock Holmes. We know that Collins was thinking of the real detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard. He investigated the notorious Road Hill House murder where he suspected Constance Kent of murdering her infant brother. Wilkie Collins takes inspiration directly from that case for a significant clue to the solution of The Moonstone.

A great strength of the novel is its unusual structure. Multiple narrators relate their partial version of events in a lengthy document. Apparently Collins was influenced by attending a criminal trial – Dickens, his close friend and mentor, started out as a court reporter so they may well have discussed this. The novel is laid out as a record of events two years after the affair of The Moonstone has been resolved. Each narrator has been asked to write a record only of what took place in their personal experience. They bear witness just as in court and are not permitted to add details with hindsight.

It’s a very clever device whereby the reader is given fair-play clueing. Characters and events are viewed through several eyes, each with their own bias or prejudice. The reader must decide who is an unreliable narrator and there may be more than one.

It’s easy to understand why the Victorian readers were avidly awaiting the next instalment as the story is just as much of a page-turner today. Part of that must be down to Wilkie Collins’s skill at writing believable characters. They leap off the page. None more so than the lovable, elderly house-steward Gabriel Betteridge who narratives the First Period – The Loss Of The Diamond. Betteridge’s view is kindly towards underdogs and outsiders, echoing Wilkie Collins’s voice. He’s also delightfully eccentric, using Robinson Crusoe as his personal oracle and ‘catching’ detective-fever when he assists Sergeant Cuff.

The Second Period – The Discovery Of The Truth, begins with the narrative of Miss Drusilla Clack. A do-gooding spinster and that stalwart of Victorian fiction, a poor relation, she’s very funny and a joy to read. Wilkie Collins is equally good at writing both sexes and you get the impression he was thinking of real women he’d met – and real occasions when he’d been earnestly harangued in someone’s drawing-room.

Miss Clack is determined to improve people whether they like it or not. Her favourite way of helping others is to leave tracts everywhere she visits. When a maid at the door unaccountably declines to take ‘A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons,’ Miss Clack triumphantly shoves it through the letter-box. Collins satirises her hypocrisy with a skill every bit as good as Dickens’. In a scene where Miss Clack is invited to stay, she writes ‘the glorious prospect of interference was opened before me.’

Wilkie Collins’s sympathy for working-class people and outsiders is evident in the novel. He shared his home with his mistress Caroline Graves, who had kept a lowly junk shop. The other woman in his life, Martha Rudd, the mother of his children, had been a barmaid and housemaid. You can tell that he saw people as individuals and didn’t regard them as inferior based on low status. It’s apparent from all his novels that he liked and understood women.

Gabriel Betteridge says: ‘People in high life have all the luxuries to themselves – among others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege. Necessity, which spares our betters, has no pity on us. We learn to put our feelings back into ourselves, and to jog on with our duties as patiently as may be.’

And the maid-servant Rosanna Spearman says bitterly of her young mistress: ‘Suppose you put Miss Rachel into a servant’s dress, and took her ornaments off?’

Collins’s treatment of the Indians in the story is also more sympathetic than most of his contemporaries. There was a sort of fascination-come-horror about India after the Mutiny in 1857. This was a useful way of introducing a touch of the exotic and a sense of threat, a nice vicarious thrill for his readers.

The other aspect that makes The Moonstone such an enjoyable read is Wilkie Collins’s superb sense of place. Gabriel Betteridge describes the setting of much of the novel.

‘Our house is high up on the Yorkshire coast, and close by the sea. We have got beautiful walks all round us, in every direction but one. That one I acknowledge to be a horrid walk. It leads, for a quarter of a mile, through a melancholy plantation of firs, and brings you out between low cliffs on the loneliest and ugliest little bay on all our coast.’

He goes on to describe a quicksand known as The Shivering Sand. Collins evokes a desolate atmosphere that contrasts vividly with the ordered grounds of the house with their rose garden, hedges and safe gravelled walks.

The Moonstone has had a wide influence. It partly inspired Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which is a sort of light-hearted detective novel interlude in his wonderful series The Pallisers. And it’s likely that Dickens’s unfinished novel The Mystery Of Edwin Drood took some influence from a major plot strand (can’t be more specific without spoilers). It’s hard not to recall The Moonstone when reading the Sherlock Holmes stories with an Indian background such as The Sign Of Four and The Creeping Man.

The Moonstone has been praised by some of the greatest detective writers including P.D James and Dorothy L. Sayers. (Her novel The Documents In The Case, co-written with Robert Eustace has a similar structure, using letters).

It appears at No. 8 on the CWA list of the Top 100 Best Crime Novels of all time. I don’t really like the idea of such lists – much as we all enjoy scanning them – so many good novels get left out. Though it’s a testament to Wilkie Collins’s powers that his greatest works are as well-loved today as they were when first published in the 1860s.

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