Monthly Archives: February 2016

“The Long Kill” by Reginald Hill

 Before he established his reputation with the “Dalziel and Pascoe” series of detective novels, Reginald Hill wrote several standalone thrillers under the pen-name Patrick Ruell. Many of these have been re-published over the years under his own name.

“The Long Kill”, mostly set in the Lake District, is the story of Jaysmith, a hired assassin working for a shady department of the British government.  Jaysmith’s technique is the long kill, taking out his target with a rifle from a considerable distance. He has a reputation as a hit-man that is second to none.

But when he is sent to the Lake District to shoot a victim sitting in his cottage garden, he misses – for the first time ever. Jaysmith has already been told that his eyesight isn’t quite what it used to be. Missing the shot persuades him to retire, seemingly to spend the rest of his days peacefully fellwalking in Lakeland.

But, of course, retiring from shady government departments isn’t quite as easy as all that. Jaysmith has a sinister boss, Jacob, who is none too keen on the prospect of losing his favoured killer.

It gets even more complicated when Jaysmith finds himself getting romantically involved with Anya, the daughter of the man he was sent to kill.

And that relationship provides much of the mystery of the novel. His target, Bryant, seems to be just a country solicitor. Jaysmith is baffled as to just why his paymaster would want the man dead?

Jaysmith finds himself in the position of defending the man he was sent to kill, threatened by other hit-men from Jacob’s department. The book comes to a particularly tense and dramatic conclusion, which leaves you on the edge of your seat. The ending will live in your mind long after you’ve closed the book.

“The Long Kill”, which is full of moral ambiguities, has a wonderful Lake District setting, mostly based around Grasmere and St John’s in the Vale. Hills and valleys where killers might be so easily concealed. The author makes even Keswick seem a threatening place to be.

Reginald Hill is very good at summoning up the atmosphere of the Lakes. He never just parachutes in local colour. You get the Lakeland fells and villages as they really are in a way few other others can match. The scenes where Jaysmith goes fellwalking are superbly written, as a fellwalker myself I can attest to their accuracy.

“The Long Kill” is thriller writing in the classic tradition – the tale of a man who lives outside the law, but is sanctioned by sinister forces within it. Not quite the tale of an innocent in peril, given Jaysmith’s  background as a hired killer, but the story of a hero who tries to bring order to a chaotic world that is beyond his control.

Interestingly, Reginald Hill revisited some of the same themes in his masterpiece final novel “The Woodcutter” (see blogs passim), also drawing in elements from his other early novel “Fell of Dark”.

“The Long Kill” is a particularly visual novel, its scenes leaping out from its pages. It would make a terrific film.

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Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie

Mrs McGinty’s Dead By Agatha Christie

Mrs McGinty’s Dead is an intriguing mystery, published in 1952. Its title comes from an old children’s game – echoing several other Christie titles which come from nursery rhymes. I’ve only heard of it played by adults. Years ago my family played ‘Mrs McGinty’s Dead’ at Christmas – a slightly different version than in the novel – and my aunt recalled playing it as a drinking game in the war-time R.A.F.

Mrs McGinty was a quiet, respectable charwoman who was found bludgeoned to death. Her lodger James Bentley was the only possible suspect with convincing evidence of his guilt. He has been tried and convicted of her murder. When the novel opens he is waiting for the death sentence to be carried out.

The case was investigated by Superintendent Spence, (who appears in Hallowe’en Party and Elephants Can Remember). He’s a thoroughly decent policeman. Despite building a seemingly irrefutable case, his instincts tell him the lodger isn’t the right type to be a murderer. He’s met too many and this time the psychology feels wrong. Spence takes his concern to an old friend and a bored Hercule Poirot gladly agrees to take another look at the case…

As usual Agatha Christie creates a wonderfully sinister atmosphere in the village of Broadhinny. We meet a varied cast of believable characters who seem innocuous though may have something to hide. It’s an interesting portrait of an English village a few years after the war. Times are gradually changing and the big houses are finding it hard to get someone who will come in and cook. A daily woman is ‘a treasure’ and employers are thankful for the half-day a week she can spare them. The sub-post office is still the hub of the community – sadly no longer in recent years.

The plot has that useful device for tension, a race against time. In prison the days of James Bentley’s life are running out. He’s accepted he’s on his way to the gallows and at first even Poirot can’t find anything missed. The way he finds the first faint hint of the trail is cleverly written.

This novel contains something more though, it’s full of delightful humour at Poirot’s expense. Agatha Christie was clearly having fun. The only accommodation in the village is at a private house where the charming hostess has no idea how to look after paying guests.

‘I do hope,’ she said, ‘that you’re not too frightfully uncomfortable?’

‘You are too kind, madame,’ he replied politely. ‘I only wish it were within my powers to provide you with suitable domestics.’

A miserable Poirot is suffering agonies of dust and disorder, gritting his teeth only to save an innocent man’s life. The descriptions of the run-down country house are very funny if you know his obsessive love of order. Early in the novel Poirot thinks proudly about his London flat, ‘There could truly be said not to be a curve in the place.’

Poirot’s old friend Mrs Ariadne Oliver also turns up in Broadhinny. Scatty yet surprisingly shrewd, she usually notices something pertinent that assists Poirot in his deductions.  Mrs Oliver – based on the author gently sending herself up -is having one of her detective novels adapted to a play. Her heartfelt comments on having her characters changed, surely echo Christie’s own thoughts.

There are plenty of suspects and an atmosphere of lurking danger, some clever misdirection and a brilliant reveal.

A fine example of classic village Christie from her heyday.

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Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

I have to admit it’s many years since I’ve read James M. Cain’s classic and very dark novel, “Double Indemnity” – and it deserves a re-read – but I did sit down to watch the classic 1944 film the other day. I’ve watched it many times over the years and it never loses its power. A great classic of film noir.

I’m not going to give away much of the plot in case you’ve never seen it. Briefly, though the film starts with insurance agent Walter Neff walking into his closed office and relating the narrative into a dictating machine.

Neff (Fred MacMurray) has visited the home of Mr Dietrichson to try and to get him to renew a motoring insurance policy. His client is out but Neff meets and becomes attracted by his wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck at her femme fatale plus).

They get talking – as you do if you’re in insurance – about life insurance. And particularly about the provision in some policies about a double indemnity clause, where the pay-out on death is doubled if the subject of the policy dies in certain obscure ways.

The talk leads ultimately to fraud and murder and then disaster. Neff finds himself leading a double life as he tries mislead his company’s ferocious claims investigator Barton Keyes (a stunning performance by Edward G. Robinson).

The film departs somewhat from Cain’s original novel, mostly to satisfy the dreaded Hays Office censors, who baulked at a story which included a massive fraud, the planning of a murder and even suicide.

It took a considerable bit of screenwriting to get round these restrictions. Fortunately, the film managed to acquire two of the best in the business, in its director Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler. Not that it was an easy alliance. They fought like cat and dog over the script, though Wilder insisted later their disagreements led to the strong script.

Like all good film noir “Double Indemnity” is shot in black and white and is all the stronger for it.

Many leading Hollywood Stars turned down the role of Walter Neff, including Gregory Peck, James Cagney, George Raft, Fredric March, Spencer Tracey and Alan Ladd.

It went to Fred MacMurray in an inspired piece of casting, for MacMurray never looks like a film actor, just the kind of ordinary Joe you might see working for an insurance company. MacMurray up to the point was best known for light comedy roles, so this was a considerable departure for him. It is a terrific piece of acting. Totally believable.

“Double Indemnity” is a film that defines film noir, an example for many films to come.v

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Writing a Victorian Thriller

An interview with John Bainbridge about his Victorian thriller “The Shadow of William Quest”:

So how did William Quest come about?

I’ve always wanted to write about aspects of the Victorian underworld, but I wanted a setting that was London and Norfolk. For a long time I had this image of a gentleman carrying a swordstick walking along a London alley. I knew straight away that he was on some sort of quest for vengeance. His name, in these preliminary thoughts was Edward Stanton. Then one day the name William Quest flashed into my mind. It seemed to fit. I knew it would open with a killing but had only the vaguest ideas as to where to go from there.

So did you write out any sort of detailed plot plan?

Not really, and I’m glad I didn’t. I scribbled a few pages of very rough ideas in a Moleskine notebook. Many of these got rejected as I went on. I knew that there had to be some sort of back story for Quest. I had thoughts on what that should be. Then I sat down and it really wrote itself.

Did it come easily?

Much easier than anything I’ve ever written before. Whole characters just appeared, complete with names. I had no idea that there would be a character called Jasper Feedle at all. He just appeared one morning with that name. Walked out on to the pages, complete. Wissilcraft, the spy, was someone else who built up his part. He was meant to be a very minor character, just in a couple of scenes. And then there he is, driving the whole plot forwards.

Did you do much research?

I took a minor in nineteenth century social history as an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia. I always had a considerable interest in the Victorian underworld so I had most of that information at my fingertips. I have always had an interest in Victorian London and Norfolk and wanted a contrast between the London rookeries and the lonely countryside of Norfolk. Recent visits back to Norfolk gave me ideas for the scenes there and for the climax.

How do you work?

Mornings only! An early start and then only to lunchtimes, then the brain gives up. I usually write between 850 to 1400 words a day. I try to write every day. I really want to do more words.

Do you have a favourite character?

It has to be Jasper Feedle. Mostly because he saved me a lot of labour and came on like an actor, gave the performance, without any great effort from me.

Why the Victorian period?

When I was younger my period was always the 17th century. My university experiences and reading since diverted me to Victorian times. I think it a fascinating period. People think they know it, but…. And there are several periods within the period. The Regency attitudes linger on for a long time into Victoria’s reign. I found that fascinating and it was one reason why I set Quest as early as 1853. Much of Dickens’ work is driven by those attitudes. Worth remembering that there were thirty years of Victorianism after Dickens died. They were rather different years, much as the 1980s were different from the 1940s.

A good time to be alive?

If you were well off. Most of my ancestors were working class during Victoria’s reign. Many had unpleasant and early deaths. But there were wonderful people fighting for reform as well. I wanted to reflect both aspects in the novel. But at the end of the day it is a thriller and not a social novel. But Victorian values are not something, generally, we should wish back. Like Quest and his friends I would like a fairer and much more compassionate world.

But the relics of Victorian Britain are still there?

They are indeed. In Britain we are fortunate that we can walk down the same streets and see the same buildings as our Victorian ancestors. Walk down many High Streets, look up above modern fascias, and we can still see the buildings they would have seen. A lot of Britons still live in the same houses as the Victorians. Much of our civic architecture is Victorian. We should make sure the planners and developers leave it alone.

Will there be any more William Quest novels?The Shadow Of William Quest Cover

I hope to finish another Quest novel by the spring.   The sequel to my historical novel “Loxley”, which is scheduled for publication next month.

What advice would you give to anyone writing a Victorian thriller?

Don’t dwell too much on the plot until you have immersed yourself in the period. Sometimes the best ideas come out of that period. Read widely, walk those Victorian streets, look at their art, listen to their music, read their literature. It’s a bit like time travel. You need to be living there in a bit of your mind. Once you can get into that state the ideas should come. Better than trying to force a plot on to the period.

“The Shadow of William Quest” is now out in paperback and on Kindle, Kobo and Nook eBook readers. Just click on the link below for more information.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadow-William-Quest-Victorian-Thriller-ebook/dp/B00JEA3E64/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1454513166&sr=1-5&keywords=William+Quest

 

 

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