Monthly Archives: April 2016

Nightwalking by Matthew Beaumont

This book is a superb account of those who wander by night, mostly in London, though occasionally further afield. The sub-title “A Nocturnal History of London” gives an idea of the general theme.

Beaumont is one of the better of the UK’s modern literary critics, with a fine knowledge of history and literature. His book examines night-life and those who find themselves out in the dark from the Middle Ages up to that inveterate nocturnal roamer Charles Dickens.

This assessment of the nocturnal is roughly divided into two camps; the noctambulant, who seek the darkness for pleasure or intellectual stimulation, and the noctivigant, those who have no choice but to be out in the darker hours, the rogues and vagabonds and, more importantly, the poor and the exploited.

Beaumont presents a curious class system here of nightwalkers; the wealthy and the intellectual unbothered by authority in their night ramblings; the poor exploited and persecuted, instantly suspect if they are found abroad after curfew. Along the way we are given excellent accounts of the existence of the medieval curfew, the rise of the streetlight, legislation governing vagabonds, and how the laws of the land in England were – and still are – weighted against the poor.

A great many literary figures who favoured exploring in the dark are featured, from Shakespeare to Dr Johnson, De Quincey to John Clare, William Blake to Wordsworth and Coleridge. And then, like a nocturnal colossus in literature, comes Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest chronicler of Nightwalking, who defines the art of the noctambulant and re-presents it so often in some of our greatest literature.

It’s a challenging read and a very well-worthwhile one for anyone who wants to really understand the world of Nightwalking or who seeks a better understanding of the social growth of London. If you want to better acquaint yourself with the background to so much of our literature and history, then this is the book for you.

Nightwalking is history and literary writing at its very best. Beaumont provides a vivid picture of the great divisions of English society, his judgements sound, and reminds the reader that some of the great problems with England never change.

Hopefully, Matthew Beaumont will one day write a similar account of the more recent nightwalkers who still wander the streets of London and elsewhere.



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High Sierra

High Sierra (1941) was the film that finally cemented Humphrey Bogart’s reputation as a Hollywood lead actor, though he had to fight the movie establishment to even get the part, including persuading George Raft not to do it.

Directed by Raoul Walsh and based on the novel by W R Burnett, and with a fairly faithful screenplay of the book by Burnett and John Huston, High Sierra is a heist movie with elements of film noir. Bogart plays gangster Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, got out of jail by a rather amiable gang leader called Big Mac (Donald MacBride) who wants Earle to lead a robbery at a fashionable resort hotel.

On his journey across country we are shown the compassionate side of Earle when he meets a farming family who have lost their farm and been obliged to travel to California to stay with relatives. The daughter of the family, Velma (Joan Leslie) has a club foot and Earle pays for her to have corrective surgery. Earle’s infatuation for Velma is rebuffed, sending him on a spiralling descent to destruction.

At a mountain resort hideout Earle meets the other members of the gang, all of them, in their differing ways, liabilities. Louis Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) who works on the reception at the hotel, and Red (Arthur Kennedy), Babe (Alan Curtis), and Marie (Ida Lupino) who becomes Earle’s moll.

There’s a scene-stealing dog as well, Pard, played by Bogart’s own pet Zero. Surely one of the most talented pooches ever filmed. The dog attaches itself to Earle, though he has a reputation for only getting close to men who are doomed.

After the robbery goes wrong, Earle goes on the run, leading to a dramatic shoot-out – terrifically staged on location – on the slopes of Mount Whitney.

High Sierra scores not only because of the terrific acting performances, particularly Bogart and Lupino, but also with the sensational real location filming and a very literate script. There are moments of awkwardness for the modern audience. The black houseboy Algernon (played by the very talented Willie Best) is little more than a racist caricature, but then this was the Hollywood of 76 years ago.

Bogart is a triumph, tough one moment, genuinely motivated by real compassion the next. His portrayal of Roy Earle, a man who is really seeking a kind of freedom and an ordinary life, deservedly made him one of the most in-demand stars in Hollywood, leading directly to his casting as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Rick in Casablanca.

Interestingly, High Sierra was remade (again by Raoul Walsh) as a western, Colorado Territory, starring Joel McCrea, and then again as a heist movie with Jack Palance as Roy Earle, called I Died a Thousand Times. Both are entertaining, though very inferior to the original. High Sierra partly succeeds because it came along at the time it did. The postwar generation of movie-goers perhaps wanted something a little smoother and the great pre-war days of the gangster movie were at an end.

High Sierra is a real classic of the heist movie genre. Well worth seeking out and usually available with extra features in Humphrey Bogart box sets.

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Writing a 1930s Detective Novel

Our latest period crime novel The Seafront Corpse, is the first in a projected series set in the early 1930s. We like the idea of spending time in the pre-war England of the Golden Age detective fiction we enjoy so much. Trying our hand at contemporary crime has never appealed – and I’m full of admiration for writers who deliver a compelling mystery while knowing their way around modern police procedure and forensics.

Rather than basing our detectives in London and sending them around the country, we fancied writing about a provincial town. Somewhere large enough to have plots for murders yet with a medium-sized community where people know the more prominent members, at least by reputation. We settled on a Sussex seaside resort, within reach of a day-trip to London.A view of Clevedon Pier in Somerset, England

The Channel resorts of south-east England were at the start of their heyday between the wars. The coastal towns of Sussex and Kent were experiencing a building boom both in housing and distinctive public buildings. Lidos, shopping arcades, ice cream parlours and pavilions were appearing. Victorian piers, theatres, town and concert halls were being given an art deco or moderne facelift. Aerodromes and motor-car showrooms were being built and of course, every large town in England was getting at least one cinema.

Some of these stylish buildings can still be enjoyed today. In Sussex, Worthing has one of the finest moderne piers in England. Opened in 1935, it has featured in an episode of Poirot. Further along the coast, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-On-Sea was built the same year. One of the most important moderne buildings in England, it is Grade 1 listed and was used in Foyle’s War. Sadly, many fine examples were bulldozed in recent decades before town councils realised what important, historic townscapes they had in their care.

Our initial thought was to use Brighton as a setting. We changed our minds as Brighton’s real-life crime in the 30s was on the hard-boiled side, as depicted in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. So we created our own Tennysham-On-Sea, influenced by but not based upon any real town. We wanted to describe a genteel resort with repertory players and beach photographers, the sort of place where Miss Marple might stay for a few days. It’s been fun mapping out our fictional town and dreaming up more features for the next book.

Tennysham isn’t meant to be too cosy. We wanted to reflect the seedy back streets, something that hasn’t changed as much as you might think. (I’ve lived in a few resorts along the Channel and rented flats that would fit well in a Patrick Hamilton novel). So Tennysham has its shabby boarding-houses, the bus-depot and laundry, gas-works and coal-yard as well as its chalk cliffs and smart sea-front.

Our detective, Inspector Eddie Chance, is a local who’s been transferred away from the town for some years. Newly promoted as head of the small C.I.D. department, he’s glad to be back home and working with his old pal and former mentor, Sergeant Wilf Bishop.

We didn’t want to write about the classic country house-party setting with an upper-class amateur sleuth, much as we enjoy reading them. Our interest is in working detectives who investigate a wide variety of characters, more Wexford than Wimsey, though we love them both.

It’s been a pleasure to attempt to create the atmosphere of the 30s, a world where the detectives wear trilbys and pipe smoke curls over the typewriter. Where they stop off at phone boxes and press button B, the Chief Constable is a retired colonel and no one’s heard of DNA.

To get the feel of the language, you can’t do better than immerse yourself in the crime fiction of the time before you start writing. Their slang for instance – which varied according to class – as well as all kinds of popular expressions and writing style. Novels of the period are full of fascinating detail such as typical meals and clothing with names of fabrics and colours we no longer say. (I won’t be using ‘nigger’ brown, though it must be remembered it was polite usage at the time).

It’s important to us that our 30s atmosphere feels as authentic as possible but there’s a balance to be struck. Novels where characters ‘ejaculate’ expressions such as ‘what ho’ or ‘top hole, old thing,’ read like a spoof. Bertie Wooster could get away with it – or even Tommy Beresford – but today they could make the reader laugh where you don’t intend it.

We’ve started our series in 1931, partly because it’s a very different time from the 30s of John’s thriller, Balmoral Kill. Set only a few years later in 1937 the world has changed and everything is overshadowed by the coming war.

This time we’re interested to look at how people were, thirteen years after the Great War. In the 1920s the prevailing mood was to try to forget the horrors and look to the future but of course that isn’t always easy. The scars remained, mental and physical. We’ve tried to reflect this in our characters.

These are my favourite reads for research, getting in the mood and enormous pleasure. In no particular order:

Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, E.F Benson’s Lucia novels, Patrick Hamilton and Richmal Crompton’s William novels.

Non-fiction: Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, J.B Priestley’s English Journey and Martin Pugh’s We Danced All Night (a superb social history of Britain between the wars).

To order our Inspector Chance novel The Seafront Corpse, just click on the link below:


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Douglas Wilmer (1920-2016)

Douglas Wilmer (1920-2016)

We were saddened to hear of the death of British actor Douglas Wilmer, albeit at the grand age of 96.

For viewers of our generation, Douglas Wilmer gave one of the greatest portrayals of Sherlock Holmes in a memorable television series which began with a version of “The Speckled Band” in 1964, and continued with another twelve of the Conan Doyle stories before Peter Cushing took over the role. Nigel Stock played Dr Watson – superbly – to both actors.

Douglas Wilmer, with his hawk-like profile, was almost born to play the great detective. He looked just like every one’s imagining of Holmes. Even after all these years I can hear his voice bringing Doyle’s words off the page.

As if that was not enough, Douglas Wilmer played two other great characters in the genre; he was a memorable Nayland Smith, adversary of Dr Fu Manchu, in two film versions of Sax Rohmer’s classic tales, and played the detective Professor van Dusen in a televising of one of Jacques Futrelle’s stories in the series “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes”.

He reprised Sherlock Holmes in the Gene Wilder’s pastiche film “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother”, as well as recording sound versions of a number of the stories.

He was a familiar face in a number of great British films and a regular in television series such as “The Saint” and “The Avengers”, and had a considerable reputation as a stage actor.

It would be wonderful if, in tribute, the television networks reprised the Sherlock Holmes series.

Another great actor has gone from us.

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