Monthly Archives: August 2016

Francis Durbridge’s “The Teckman Mystery”

For anyone growing up in England during the middle years of the 20th century, the name of writer Francis Durbridge, in connection with mystery writing, was an indication of twists and turns, considerable cunning, and particularly fine writing.

Durbridge was very prolific and, although he wrote fiction, his greater reputation was as a scriptwriter for films and television. Throughout those decades, UK audiences would cancel appointments to make sure they were in when the latest Durbridge mystery was aired on our TV screens.

The Teckman Mystery, though, is a film, suggested by Durbidge’s original story The Teckman Biography. It features one of his regular characters the crime-writer Philip Chance, played in this 1954 production by John Justin.

As the film begins, we meet Chance flying back to England from his villa in the south of France. He is returning to London to meet his publisher, who wants him to write a biography of Martin Teckman, an airman who has died testing a new aircraft, though his body was never found.

By coincidence, on his journey to England, Chance meets Teckman’s sister Helen (Margaret Leighton), who seems puzzled by the death of her brother.

Now, I’m not going to give away much else of the plot, for Durbridge deserves to be seen with no spoilers.

Enough to say, that, as so often with Durbridge stories, nothing is quite what it seems to be. Which characters can be trusted, and who are your real allies as opposed to enemies.

A series of “accidents” beset the would-be biographer of Teckman, leading to attempted bribery, burglary and murder – but who wants his investigation into Teckman’s accident hushed up?

And just why are Scotland Yard and MI5 so interested in Philip Chance’s inquiries?

This Cold War thriller made in 1954, was directed by the excellent Wendy Toye, and features an superb cast, including – apart from Justin and Leighton – Roland Culver, Michael Medwin and Duncan Lamont. It’s shot, as are most good films in this genre, in crisp black and white. And how wonderful to see a 1950s London before the city was wrecked by tower-blocks…

Watching the Teckman Mystery is a very enjoyable way to spend a rainy afternoon.

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My Victorian Writing World

Just over a month now to the publication of the sequel to my novel The Shadow of William Quest. The new title will be available for pre-order at a special price a little while before that, so do keep visiting the blog for all the latest news. forgotten_00051-Kindle-Fina

From now until then, I’ll be putting out a few items both about the new book, and the first in the series.

How did it all come about?

I’d long wanted to write a book set in Victorian times, not least because much of the Victorian world is still familiar to those of us living in the UK. As we wander through the streets of Britain we can – if we lift our eyes above the modern fascias on the shops – still see what our Victorian forebears saw.

The same street patterns, by and large, many of the same buildings, and the much of the landscapes they knew. Too much has been lost, and we should be saving what is left, but the Victorian street map may still be traced.

If we could travel back in time, we could enter the world of William Quest – the new book is set in 1854 – with little difficulty. Though there would be some surprises. It could be a brutal world, not as settled as some people have implied. There are many Victorian Values that deserved to be relegated to the history books.

My William Quest is a bit of a reformer. His ideas bore fruit, though it doesn’t always seem like it.

I’ve always been interested in Victorian Britain, since the subject was taught at my primary school. Much of our great literature was written in the 19th century. Reading those classic books plunges back into that world. We are – for good or bad – still little Victorians in so many ways.

I knew some Victorians, of course, though they were all born late in the period. Nevertheless, I remember them well, their attitudes and the way they talked. My grandparents were Victorians, though they were all very young when the old Queen died.

For quite a time, I moved away from Victorian history, into other periods. As some of you will know, I also write historical novels about Robin Hood – Loxley and Wolfshead, with a third book out next year, so I have a passion for the that period. For a long time I’ve had an interest in the English Civil War. I like the Anglo-Saxons too.

The Victorians tended to go on the back-burner.

Then, nearly thirty years ago I became an undergraduate of the Open University, doing an arts course that was almost entirely Victorian. After a couple of years, I went as a full-time undergraduate to the University of East Anglia.

My major was literature, though I did a minor in 19th century social history, some of which looked at the Victorian underworld. It all stayed in my mind, though work pressures kept the writing of fiction at bay. I did, however, write the texts for a series of topographical books about the towns and landscapes of England.

I spent nine years working as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, founded in 1883 and very proud of its Victorian campaigning roots.

The Victorians never quite went away.

I wanted to write a novel with a slightly dubious hero set in Victorian times, a kind of Penny Dreadful, the kind of pulp literature of action and derring-do that the Victorians themselves enjoyed reading – though they’d often pretend that their literary tastes were a tad more pretentious.

I’ve always loved such tales myself, and used to hunt them out when I was an undergraduate. They were all good fun, sometimes morally dubious. But a reading of them tells a lot about Victorian popular taste. I go as far as to state that you cannot grasp the complexities of Victorian society if you don’t read them.

While I enjoy the finer works of literature I also worship their slightly more questionable cousins – and that in itself is something I have in common with my Victorian ancestors…

To order the FIRST William Quest novel, The Shadow of William Quest, please just click on the link below. And if you have read it and enjoyed it please do leave a review. The new Quest novel will be available to pre-order in September:


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Calamity In Kent by John Rowland

Another seaside read for late summer this week, Calamity in Kent, one of the British Library Crime Classics. This has the bonus of an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards and another breezy railway poster cover. The novel was published in 1950 and this is the first reprint. It is set in the fictional resort of Broadgate, a very lightly disguised Broadstairs. We can be sure of this as Rowland describes the topography in detail and mentions the real area of North Foreland, just beyond the town.

Broadstairs is a charming place, full of historic interest, with two claims to literary fame. Dickens loved the town, visiting many times and writing much of David Copperfield there. John Buchan and his family were staying at Broadstairs in the summer of 1914. His wife’s cousin was renting a cliff-top property which had a flight of steps leading to a private beach. They and the town are the inspiration for the end of The Thirty-nine Steps.

Calamity In Kent is narrated by Jimmy London, a journalist recuperating at Broadgate after an operation. His illness is unspecified but we know he’s been staying there in a boarding-house for some weeks. Taking a turn on the prom before breakfast, he sees a man who’s had a bad shock. He’s the operator of the cliff railway who has just discovered a body in the locked cliff railway carriage.

Jimmy’s newshound instincts make him excited to be first on the spot. There follows an amusing interlude where he views the body and manages to despatch the lift attendant to fetch the police. Left alone, he not only frisks the corpse, finding out his identity but finds a notebook – uncomfortably near splatters of blood – and cheerfully pockets it.

Jimmy immediately phones a Fleet Street editor and gets himself appointed special correspondent for the murder story. He can scent his way back to replenishing his funds and landing a staff job.

In my time I had been in on a few scoops. This, however, was the first time that I had ever had the inside story of a murder handed to me on a plate. And I knew that a recent increase in the newsprint ration meant that the papers would give a bit more space to the case, if it was truly sensational, than they had been able to do in years.

Then Jimmy meets up with an old friend, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, who happens to be staying with the Chief Constable. Not having much faith in the unimaginative local man, Inspector Beech, Shelley suggests that he and Jimmy London pool their knowledge.

I think it would be as well if we agreed to share the work of investigation. You see, there are people who might talk to a journalist, who, on the other hand, would not so readily talk to a policeman. Queer, no accounting for personal taste.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of reviews with readers complaining about this unrealistic device but I’m happy to suspend belief if I’m enjoying myself. (We never miss Midsomer Murders or Father Brown.) It is rather convenient how Jimmy finds one lead after another and everyone readily tells him useful information – instead of where to get off. Even so, I did enjoy Calamity in Kent very much.

Jimmy London is an engaging protagonist. Optimistic, resourceful, unscrupulous, he’s very believable and you can’t help taking to him. Inspector Shelley is likable too and is John Rowland’s usual detective. The narrative gains added interest in being from Jimmy’s point of view. The plot is great fun and builds to an exciting denouement. This has a sense of real danger and comes close to the feel of a fifties thriller or black and white film.

Calamity in Kent has an interesting transitional feel in the world of 20th century crime fiction. The setting is familiar to that of a Golden Age detective novel but contains many post-war references. A character has a limp from a war wound. We hear about newsprint rationing, the difficulty of obtaining motor spares, identity cards, nationalisation of the coal mines and the black market. Britain’s seaside resorts have resumed their heyday – although they’ve only a decade or so before holiday-makers will fly away to the sun. But things aren’t quite the same. The barbed wire’s been taken off the beach, the Home Guard disbanded and the blown-up part of the pier repaired. There’s another list of names  on the war memorial. Even in a real life Walmington-on-sea, times are changing.

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Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library

Colonel and Mrs Bantry had always believed that ‘a body in the library’ only happened in books.The Body in the Library (Miss Marple) (Miss Marple Series Book 3) by [Christie, Agatha]

This novel is the second outing for Miss Marple. Though published in 1942 – the first of two that year – it contains no reference to the War until a single mention near the end. Life in St Mary Mead is unchanged – apart from the racy young man, connected with films, who has taken ‘Mr Booker’s new house’ – until a body is discovered at Gossington Hall. A platinum blonde is lying strangled on the bearskin hearthrug and none of the household has ever seen her before.

Fortunately, Dolly Bantry immediately sends the car for her friend Jane Marple. There’s a lovely moment where Mrs Bantry leans on the local constable guarding the library, so Miss Marple can view the corpse before the arrival of Inspector Slack.

“There was the sound of a car scrunching on the gravel outside. Constable Palk said with urgency:

    ‘That’ll be the Inspector…’

    True to his ingrained belief that the gentry didn’t let you down, Mrs Bantry immediately moved to the door. Miss Marple followed her. Mrs Bantry said:

    ‘That’ll be all right, Palk.’

    Constable Palk was immensely relieved.”

Colonel and Mrs Bantry are lovable characters in a very English upper-class tradition; prominent in village life, the Colonel, a magistrate and friend of the Chief Constable. At first Mrs Bantry finds the mystery exciting. She says to Miss Marple:

    “What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one’s house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean. That’s why I want you to come and help me find out who did it and unravel the mystery and all that. It really is rather thrilling, isn’t it?”

However, both ladies know that if the murderer is never found, gossips will always think the dead girl was involved with Colonel Bantry and his reputation and peace of mind will never recover. The village rumour mill begins at once. I like the way Agatha Christie inserts some very funny lines at this point, contrasting with the underlying seriousness. Christie has often been criticised for writing underdeveloped stock characters. I disagree, feeling she had a great ability to sum up a character in a throwaway line or two.

    “Miss Wetherby, a long-nosed, acidulated spinster, was the first to spread the intoxicating information.”

    “’His poor wife.’ Miss Hartnell tried to disguise her deep and ardent pleasure… She had a deep bass voice and visited the poor indefatigably, however hard they tried to avoid her ministrations.”

Christie tells us all we need to know. Her skill reminds me of an artist dashing off lightning sketches. A great example of ‘less is more.’

The action soon shifts to the Majestic Hotel in the resort of Danemouth, about eighteen miles away. This part of the novel has lots of interesting social detail about pre-war stays in splendid seaside hotels – a popular trope in Golden Age crime fiction and one I particularly enjoy. This world would have been very familiar to Agatha Christie from her upbringing in Torquay. It is very like the setting of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase. In fact, Christie seems to be gently sending up the widespread fascination with crime, both fictional and true. (This certainly hasn’t dated). At one point a small boy says to the Superintendent:

“Do you like detective stories? I do. I read them all, and I’ve got autographs from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H.C. Bailey. Will the murder be in the papers?”

There are also remarks in passing about the real-life Rouse case and the Brighton trunk murders, unusual for Christie, as far as I recall.

Despite the humour and attractive settings, Agatha Christie never loses sight of the fact that the theme is murder. She makes the reader aware that the story isn’t just an intriguing puzzle. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Someone evil must be caught and hanged. An innocent man must be saved from having his good name destroyed and being shunned. In fact, Colonel Bantry’s plight is horribly relevant today with the current fashion for ordeal by tabloid.

The solution to the mystery is classic Christie with a well-reasoned motive and a callous murderer. This is Agatha Christie at her finest with trademark twist and superb understanding of human nature in a vivid period setting. All this in only 154 pages. Highly recommended.

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Wreckers Must Breathe by Hammond Innes

There was a time, and not so many years ago, when the shelves of bookshops and the racks in newsagents positively heaved with titles by thriller-writer Hammond Innes. You tend not to see them around so much these days, though the lovely Pan paperback editions are a staple of many a second-hand book-dealer. Most writers go through an eclipse in the first few decades after their deaths. Some are lost for ever. Others get rediscovered by new generations of readers.

When I was younger, (Ralph) Hammond Innes’s name was a byword for good story-telling, every title a best-seller. I’ve started to read him again, and with great pleasure. His fast-moving thrillers deserve a new readership. I shall look at several of his books over the coming months.

Wreckers Must Breathe is one of his early titles, written during the first year of World War Two and published in 1940. Like his hero, Walter Craig, Innes was in Cornwall during the first weeks of the war. He watched the British Naval Fleet go to action stations in the English Channel. He heard stories of U-boat sightings. Hammond Innes put all of this atmosphere and more into his novel.

The premise is dazzlingly simple: In the years before the war the Nazis have been secretly building a hidden submarine base in an abandoned tin mine under the Cornish Coast. His hero and a fisherman friend are captured and held prisoner in the base. A woman journalist, Maureen Weston, sent to discover what has happened to the missing Craig, suffers the same fate.

It’s all here; storms at sea, the wild Cornish coast – and Innes is as good as Winston Graham at evoking Cornish villages and atmosphere – desperate fights underground, the claustrophobic tunnels and galleries of tin mines, the terror of being depth-charged in a U-boat.

Where Hammond Innes differs from his contemporaries, say Alastair MacLean, is that his heroes tend not to be heroes in the traditional sense. They are not supermen or trained killers, but ordinary men and women drawn by pure fluke into a world of adventure. This makes it very easy for the reader to identify with them. Walter Craig might work on a newspaper, but he’s not some ace reporter – he’s a drama critic. Maureen Weston, a feisty heroine, might have worked in journalism, but is trying to write a novel when she’s caught up in this adventure

The first-person action – related by Walter Craig and Maureen Weston – never stops. The menace is always there. If you want to know how to write a thriller then it’s worthwhile studying Innes’s technique. He had a talent of pitching you right into the scene alongside his characters.

Hammond Innes’ settings are always wonderful. As a keen sailor himself, Hammond Innes knew a great deal about the sea and ships. His portrayal of Cornwall is spot-on as well, reminding me of the places I knew there as a boy, when we walked the cliffs, strolled through its fishing villages and went out in boats. Sadly, it’s changed a bit since then.

And I think it’s interesting that this is an early thriller with a World War Two setting, written at a time when it looked improbable that Britain could survive.

Such reading as this, where right triumphs over might, must have been a real comfort to its first readers; the civilian army of Britain, facing the dangers of combat for the first time; the volunteers of the Home Guard, armed sometimes only with broomsticks as a weapon; the civilians huddled in their air-raid shelters and the schoolchildren who would have found this story very exciting as they were evacuated to the countryside.

Wreckers Must Breathe is a cracking read by a true master of the art of the thriller. Hammond Innes is a writer who deserves a new audience.

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Rogue Male

I was thrilled to hear that a new film version of Geoffrey Household’s classic thriller Rogue Male is to be made, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I look forward to it but do hope they stay faithful to the book.

I blogged Rogue Male a while age. Here are my thoughts: Rogue Male by [Household, Geoffrey]

Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male” has always been one of my favourite thrillers. I’ve read it countless times, not just for the exciting story but for Household’s wonderful descriptions of the countryside.

It jostles in position with John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, as the greatest chase thriller ever written.

The novel was first published in 1939 on the eve of World War Two, and was immediately popular. Household wrote some memorable and very readable novels afterwards – many with a chase theme – but never quite again touched the greatness of “Rogue Male”, though all of his books are worth seeking out.

The tale of a man who flees to the lonely countryside of Dorset after an attempt to kill an unnamed dictator, in point of fact Adolf Hitler, is gripping and a real page-turner. Even after all my many reads I never want to tear myself away when I pick up the volume once more.

As a fugitive the hero crosses Germany to reach England. There are memorable chapters in a very threatening and sinister London, and a long section set in Dorset.

Household, like Buchan, is particularly brilliant at giving a sense of place. For a thriller there are some quite beautiful portraits of landscape: the long reaches of the Wessex hillsides with their ridge-paths and hollow ways, the forests and rivers of Bavaria, the rural towns where danger lurks.

And the people encountered are realistic too. A shrinking dissident trying to survive in the Nazi state, the farmers of the Westcountry, a merchant navy sailor, shopkeepers, working people on holiday. Every single one beautifully drawn.

And a memorable villain, which to me is a requirement of all good thrillers.

Household really gets over what it’s like to be the subject of a manhunt. The fear and often sheer desperation and tiredness that drives you on and on. The need to cross ground without being observed. The knowledge of when to lie low and when to move on. When to go to earth – which the hero of “Rogue Male” does, literally.

If you’ve ever had to cross country without being seen you’ll know the veracity of Household’s treatment of the theme. Few writers have captured these feelings of escape and evasion quite so well as Household does. And in a writing style that is not only literate but quite beautiful in its descriptions.

There is now a splendid new edition of “Rogue Male” available with a perceptive introduction by the writer and landscape interpreter Robert MacFarlane. I commend it to you. MacFarlane describes an expedition he made with the late Roger Deakin into the depths of the Dorset countryside, in search of Household’s locations.

MacFarlane does an excellent job, whether writing about the tropes of the chase thriller or the countryside that provides the setting of “Rogue Male”. This novel benefits from having an introduction by a writer who loves the English countryside as much as Geoffrey Household clearly did.

I’ve tramped these same places myself and lived rough alongside the ancient paths and hollow ways of Dorset, often for weeks on end. I often used to take my own battered old edition of “Rogue Male” with me, and read it as the dusk fell and the owls began to call.
Fortunately, I never had the Gestapo on my trail.

“Rogue Male” is the hallmark against which all good thrillers should be tested.


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Writing a Period Thriller

Being a great enthusiast for hillwalking in Scotland, I’d always wanted to set a novel  where much of the action takes place in the country’s mountains and glens. Balmoral-Kindle-Cover-Final

So my adventure story Balmoral Kill is a love letter to the great open spaces of the Borders and the Highlands. True enough my book begins in the alleys of London’s East End, but soon moves location – first to the countryside around Peebles, and then to the wild landscape around Balmoral, with a climax at Loch Muick.

These are both areas I’ve walked, and I spent a lot of time at Loch Muick (pronounced Mick) working out just how a gunfight between two protagonists might play out.

The setting is just before World War Two, with the Nazi threat hanging over Europe. I like reading thrillers myself, but prefer them when the hero can’t use modern technology like mobile phones to get himself out of trouble. Where only individual daring and skill can come to his aid.

Of the thrillers and historical fiction I’ve written so far Balmoral Kill is my personal favourite. Not least because it reminds me of all those happy days walking in Scotland.

I hope to write the sequel some time next year. I already have an idea for a plot and a setting. I left the hero of Balmoral Kill, Sean Miller, returning to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Whether he actually gets back there or is diverted into a new adventure remains to be seen.

Europe was a dangerous place in the last years of the 1930s. The shadow of war not far away. A lot of work for an adventurer like Sean Miller….

If you haven’t read it, Balmoral Kill is available in paperback and on Kindle as an eBook. Just click on the link below to read more….


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