Monthly Archives: June 2016

Dick Donovan – Detective

Before Sherlock Holmes there was Dick Donovan, hugely popular first in Scottish and national newspapers, and then – like Sherlock – in the pages of the Strand magazine. Donovan, who is not just the detective but the purported author of these tales, was thought by many early readers to be a real detective, relating actual cases.

In fact they are fiction, penned by a quite fascinating author called Joyce Emmerson Preston Muddock (1842-1934), the author of some fifty books and 250 detective stories. For a time, in the Strand, Sherlock and Donovan appeared in subsequent issues. A joy for the reader, I would think. If you can’t have Sherlock, have Donovan.

Now, I’d often heard of Dick Donovan. His exploits feature in many books on Victorian detective fiction. But until a month ago, I’d never read any. Then, on holiday in Oban, I found a wonderful new edition of the earliest stories, set when Donovan is a detective in Glasgow, with a quite superb introduction by Bruce Durie. Mr Durie gives a splendid account of Muddock’s colourful life and relates how the character of Dick Donovan came about. This is certainly the edition to get.

Muddock was a prolific journalist and fiction-author, who led an extraordinary life, being present in major historical events such as the Indian Mutiny and travelling through parts of the world that were considerably dangerous at the time, all grist to the writer’s mill, before settling down as an editor and writer. I’ll say no more here, for you should read Mr Durie’s account of this fascinating man’s life for yourself.

It’s easy to understand just why early readers thought these cases were accounts of real-life detection. There is a verisimilitude about the cases that certainly suggest that there is a real detective at work here. Dick Donovan, in the course of this volume alone, deals with murders, man-slaughterers, embezzlers, grand and petty thefts and encounters some memorable characters along the way.

We never, at least not in these early stories, learn much about Donovan himself, except that he is a likeable detective who works by instinct and his experience of human frailties and character. What does come shining through, from the author and his creation, is a huge compassion for the messes that ordinary people get into. In several of the stories you feel sympathy for the criminals, some of whom are trapped in crime by the unfair circumstances of Victorian society. But Donovan never hesitates to do his duty, though always with an understanding and sense of fairness

Muddock’s sense of place is excellent too. He has that rare writer’s gift for describing a setting in a few lines. I was quite lost in the Victorian Glasgow of so many of these tales. Almost like a kind of fictional time-travelling.

These stories, and the works of this author, are too good to be lost on the dusty sleeves of second-hand bookshops. They are of the highest quality of fiction. J.E.Preston Muddock and Dick Donovan deserve a renaissance.

To order a copy just click on the link below:

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The Detective Novels of Michael David Anthony

I’ve chatted to many devotees of crime fiction who haven’t come across Michael David Anthony (1942-2003), probably because he died far too young at sixty-one and published only three detective novels. Sadly, British bookshops and libraries mostly only stock newer titles these days which means readers have little chance of finding overlooked authors.

Anthony was an outstanding writer, superb on plot, character and background. His novels are in print, thanks to Felony & Mayhem Press, the wonderful American publishers, but it’s a shame he’s forgotten by the British publishing industry. The novels could be described as literary detective fiction, classic English and the setting for all three is one of my favourite sub-genres, clerical crime.

Anthony created an unusual amateur sleuth, Colonel Richard Harrison, secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board at Canterbury Cathedral. This post gives Harrison an outsider’s view of the clergy who live in the Close. Through his eyes we see the Church of England struggling with the changing demands of modern life – the clergy’s schemes and antipathies being closer to Trollope than P.D. James’s Death in Holy Orders. Harrison’s work gives him lots of scope to tour around the diocese, visiting church properties in lovely East Kent villages while investigating.

Richard Harrison is a really interesting character, a tall figure, grey-haired and spare. A traditionalist who wants a quiet life, though he has his secrets. His army career was spent as a spy in military intelligence during the Cold War and in two of the novels The Becket Factor (1990) and Dark Provenance (1994), a connection from his past draws him into the present mystery. His wife Winnie is an art teacher, wheelchair-bound after contracting polio early in their marriage. Their relationship has in the past been strained by his work and guilt.

The clever, subtle plotting means that although the novels are about murder, the reader sees through Harrison’s eyes (in third person) and the police are minor characters. There’s no need for a friendly detective or any sidekick. Full of ambiguity and moral dilemma, they’re intelligent, thought-provoking and the unmasking of the murderer is always deeply satisfying. They’re the sort of novels where you’re avid to know whodunit but you don’t want them to end.

Michael David Anthony had an extremely good understanding of human nature. (Possibly because he grew up in a vicarage.) His characters are fully-drawn and motivations – murderous or otherwise – are completely believable. Like Agatha Christie, he knew how to write about evil. His murderers are chilling in their ordinariness.

His sense of place is wonderful, immersing the reader in Harrison’s world of the cathedral precincts, bustling city and surrounding countryside.

All day the fog had lain across Canterbury, obscuring the sun and giving a more than usually dank and melancholy feel to the autumn streets. Along the oozy, winding banks of the twin-channelled Stour, the mist had steadily wafted up and thickened as the short day waned, curling up under the overhanging gables and around the weed-draped and lichened piles of the medieval pilgrims’ hostel known as the Weavers (now an almshouse for the elderly) spanning the sluggish stream. Smothering in turn the venerable remnants of Greyfriars, Blackfriars and the ruined Dominican Priory, it had spread like some foul exhalation or conjured ectoplasm out from the river into the surrounding streets. Blending with the steaming exhausts of the city traffic, it proceeded to creep its way through a host of ancient backways and lanes, finally reaching out across the greasy, worn cobbles of the Buttermarket through the ancient Christ Church Gatehouse and on into the grounds of the cathedral itself.

These are very Kentish novels. As you can guess, The Becket Factor has a theme relating to Thomas A’ Becket’s murder at Canterbury. The final novel Midnight Come (1998) has parallels with the life of Christopher Marlowe. I’d recommend reading in order as for me,  each novel gets even better. They build a feeling of tension about Harrison which culminates in Midnight Come. This in particular is one of the most superb detective novels I’ve ever read.

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Night and the City

Some time ago I blogged on Gerald Kersh’s classic novel Night and the City, https://gaslightcrime.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/night-and-the-city-by-gerald-kersh/

One of the finest novels ever written about London’s Soho and its underworld. Product Details

But today I want to talk about director Jules Dassin’s 1950 film version, perhaps one of the finest examples of film noir ever made. And the first remark I would make is to forget the book entirely. Dassin’s film has only a slight resemblance to the book. Dassin never read it until after he’d made the picture, and Kersh was, perhaps understandably, rather peeved.

However, out of one masterpiece came another. The film, in so very many ways, equals the book in quality. Now a word of warning. There are at least two different cuts of Night and the City, both with different musical scores. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call them the American and British versions. And to complicate matters there are scenes in one that are missing from the other. The British version has a weaker romanticised ending. Personally, I favour the American version and its musical score; the latter seeming more apt for this excursion into noir.

In the novel, the hero, Harry Fabian, tries to pass himself off as an American hustler. In the film the part is played by an American, as an American. Richard Widmark is quite superb as this two-bit hustler, roaming the streets of Soho and the banks of the Thames, and never once seeming out of place. Desperate to take over control of the all-in wrestling scene, corrupt and crime-ridden at that time, Fabian hustles money from night-club owner Phil Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan, in his greatest screen role) and his wife Helen (a menacing Googie Withers).

As the wrestling scene is run by gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom) this puts Fabian in considerable danger. Only the fact that Fabian has gone into partnership with Kristo’s father, an old champion wrestler known as Gregorious the Great, saves him. The old grappler is played by former world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko.  Zbyszko had never acted before, but he gives a wonderful performance, culminating in a graphic bout with the actor and former wrestler Mike Mazurki. Probably the best fictional wrestling bout on film.

It all, of course, goes badly for Harry Fabian, who soon finds himself on the run, with much of the London underworld appearing to be after him.

At one point, Fabian is described as a man for ever on the move, on the run. And Widmark gives a performance where his character is always in motion, hardly ever still, leading up to a terrific chase sequence at the end, through the monochrome streets and bomb sites of postwar London.

The photography is quite superb, depicting a London now lost for ever, beautiful to look at, this film, and benefitting from the stark contrasts of black and white, which adds to the feeling of menace. Monochrome should be used more often in film-making. Colour is not everything, as modern cinematographers should learn.

If there are weaknesses in the film, it is the under-use of film noir regular Gene Tierney, as Fabian’s love interest. She plays so little a part in the story the character might as well not be there. Hugh Marlowe – a grand actor who deserved better parts and more leads than he got – as her neighbour is totally wasted. But these are small flaws in Dassin’s masterpiece.

Dassin was sent to London by Daryl Zanuck to make this picture, to evade possible arrest due to alleged communist sympathies, in the paranoia that beset Hollywood at that time. The director was, rather like Fabian, almost on the run. Because of the political difficulties he was allowed very little hand in post-production editing, though his ideas were taken on board.

This all added up to the creation of a masterpiece, the real-location shooting giving the film a vibrancy and reality which is quite outstanding.

Different from the book? Yes, but the two complement each other is portraying London and its underworld at a most interesting time in history.

To order Night and the City just click on the link below:

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“The Franchise Affair”by Josephine Tey

 

Josephine Tey’s crime novel The Franchise Affair is one of those titles so famed that many readers know the premise. Sometimes feeling you remember the set-up of a book too well can put you off re-reading it for years. When I finally did, I soon realised I’d forgotten just how good a novel this is. I was hooked again from the first page.

Product DetailsPublished in 1949, the plot was inspired by the real case of an eighteenth century maidservant called Elizabeth Canning. In 1753 she went missing for almost a month, claiming she’d been abducted and held prisoner by two women.

As the novel opens, Robert Blair is a fortyish solicitor with a comfortable, settled life in the appealing small Midlands town of Milford. Though he’s started to wonder if he’ll grow old with the weeks marked only by clients, golf and the biscuits his secretary places on his tea tray.

It had to do with the inevitability of the biscuit routine; the placid certainty that it would be digestive on a Thursday and petit-beurre on a Monday. Until the last year or so, he had found no fault with certainty or placidity. He had never wanted any other life but this: this quiet friendly life in the place where he had grown up.

He receives a telephone call from Marion Sharpe. She and her mother have been accused of kidnapping a girl and holding her prisoner in their secluded house The Franchise. The girl describes their home very convincingly and the police can’t shake her story. Believing the Sharpes are innocent, Robert Blair turns detective in a race against time to solve the puzzle before they go on trial.

This is an intriguing mystery and most unusual in that there is no murder. Tey’s series detective Inspector Alan Grant appears only as a minor character. Elegantly written, the narrative draws the reader into a vanished England, pleasantly dull provincial life a few years after the Second World War.

Familiar Agatha Christie territory at first but as the two women come under increasing harassment, Tey shows a disturbing view of society which is as relevant today as when it was written. Press witch-hunts, snap judgement of strangers and mob violence are sadly still with us. She writes about how people view those of us who are perceived to be slightly ‘different’. Do we really know our neighbours behind their respectable masks?

The Franchise Affair is such a strong novel with a refreshingly original plot, a lovely sense of place and totally believable characters. The reader quickly becomes partisan, loving the allies that appear and longing for the right outcome. The well-paced story unravels with intelligent detective work and growing tension. The ending is very satisfying, holding more than a foregone conclusion.

It’s many years since I saw the film made in 1951, starring Michael Denison and – you’ve guessed it – Dulcie Gray, must seek it out. I remember the 1988 BBC serial which starred Patrick Malahide, Joanna McCallum and Rosalie Crutchley. (Rosalie Crutchley who played Mrs Sharpe had been Marion in an earlier version from 1962.) How I wish they were available on DVD. Patrick Malahide is one of my favourite actors (he played a wonderful Roderick Alleyn from Ngaio Marsh’s detective novels) and from what I recall, it was a first-class production.

The Franchise Affair was voted number eleven in the CWA 100 Best Crime Novels. I’m not keen on the idea of such polls being taken as definitive – how could they be? However, it’s testament to how many people love this novel.  If you enjoy period detection, it’s an absolute gem.

To order a copy of The Franchise Affair just click on the link below:

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The Dartmoor Enigma by Basil Thomson

The Dartmoor Enigma by Basil Thomson

Published in 1935, The Dartmoor Enigma is the fifth in Basil Thomson’s series of Inspector Richardson Mysteries. I picked this title to try as I’ve many happy memories of exploring ‘the moor’ as it’s known in South Devon.

A man living on Dartmoor dies in his bed, apparently from the after-effects of a motor accident. The inquest verdict is ‘death by misadventure.’ When the Chief Constable and Scotland Yard receive anonymous letters saying he was murdered, Chief Inspector Richardson and Sergeant Jago are sent to the West Country to investigate.

Richardson is what’s known as ‘the junior chief inspector’ at the Yard.

There were those who resented his quick promotion over the heads of officers senior to him, but it was impossible to feel malice towards a man who gave himself no airs, who appeared ever anxious to learn from those junior to himself in rank, and who gave the fullest credit to all who worked under him.’

Even after that build-up, Richardson does come across as likable and human. I think possibly he doesn’t have a regular side-kick as Sergeant Jago is placed with him on account of his being a native of Tavistock, near the edge of Dartmoor.

The names Thomson uses for moorland villages are made-up, though if you know the area you can work out the real places he had in mind. In the course of a distinguished and varied career, Basil Thomson was the Governor of Dartmoor Prison before the Great War. Much of the opening action is set around the village of Duketon with its Duchy Arms Hotel, a thinly-disguised Princetown where the prison is situated. One of my ancestors was the village bobby there in the 1860s. The descriptions tend to be slight – in the sparing writing style so often found in the Golden Age – yet Thomson catches the atmosphere he would have known so well. The novel starts in October,

One of those rarely warm and beautiful days that seem to be sent to leave dwellers on the moor with a memory of the dead summer when the pall of mist and rain is due to descend upon them.

The plot is a complex puzzle – not locked-room ingenious – but a well-written early police procedural with an interesting thread to unravel, believable characters and a plausible solution. I liked Richardson and Jago with their dogged determination. Among his many positions, Basil Thomson was Assistant Commissioner to the Metropolitan Police from 1913-19, thus the head of C.I.D. You couldn’t get more authentic inside knowledge than that!

It’s interesting to think how much styles in crime-writing have changed since the thirties. We learn almost nothing about Richardson apart from his rapid rise through the ranks. These days a strong background of the detective’s personal life and a certain amount of psychological insight is nearly compulsory – unless writing at the thriller end of the spectrum.

Like many readers I enjoy catching up with the protagonist’s home life and some Golden Age novelists did go in for a series arc in this way. Peter Wimsey’s relationship with Harriet Vane and Rory Alleyn and Troy spring to mind. But it’s a refreshing change now and again to read a crime novel written in this straightforward, no extras style. The detective concentrates on the puzzle without the usual tropes of the lone maverick, their love-life, quirks or conflict with authority. Perhaps the balance today has shifted a little too far in the other direction?

I also love reading about the social commentary in inter-war detective novels, the clothes, food, vocabulary, the nuances of the class system etc. are fascinating. I look forward to the other seven Inspector Richardson Mysteries and the detailed introductions by Martin Edwards are a lovely bonus.

To order a copy please click on the link below:

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