Monthly Archives: November 2016

Rogue Male with Peter O’Toole

Several times on this blog I’ve mentioned my enthusiasmRogue Male (DVD-R) (1976) (All Regions) (NTSC) (US Import) for Geoffrey Household’s classic chase thriller Rogue Male.  I’ve already reviewed the Walter Pigeon film Man Hunt, Hollywood’s take on the novel, and the book itself. (see blogs passim).

Recently, I watched the BBC version from 1976, starring Peter O’Toole. I hadn’t seen this since it was first broadcast. My memory told me it was very good, and this film certainly lives up to my original good opinion. It comes the closest to the book.

Now, if you’ve never read Rogue Male, do seek it out. I won’t give any spoilers in this review. Its unnamed hero – called Robert Thorndyke in the film – attempts to shoot Adolf Hitler in the last days of peace in the 1930s.

In the aftermath of the attempt, the hunter becomes the hunted, There are some quite splendid chase sequences in the film – across Germany, through the London Underground railway, and finally into the downlands and hollow-ways of Dorset. Although some scenes are lost, inevitably for film time, the rest are portrayed with great fidelity.

Peter O’Toole was wont to remark that it was his favourite role in his long and distinguished acting career. It’s easy to see why.

There are some quite excellent supporting performances by the cream of British acting talent: Cyd Hayman makes a flashback appearance as Thorndyke’s lover. Michael Byrne is terrific and menacing as a Gestapo interrogator, John Standing is both urbane and threatening as Major Quive-Smith – sent by the Third Reich to track down Thorndyke, Alastair Sim is Thorndyke’s Cabinet Minister uncle (the only character who isn’t in the book). There’s an interesting appearance by the playwright Harold Pinter as Thorndyke’s solicitor Paul Abrahams.

But this really is Peter O’Toole’s film. I think it is the finest performance of his career. He really gets what it it to be hunted. He’s broken in so many ways by the events that sent him to Germany. He is physically and mentally scarred by what happens afterwards.

Household’s hero in the book tries to convince himself that getting Hitler in his gunsight was a sporting stalk, that he never intended to shoot. We see here just how that self-delusion came about.

Rogue Male is a particularly difficult book to film. The novel itself is told in the first person and the hero is a broken narrator. We see all of the action through his own thoughts. The hunter indeed becomes the hunted. Clive Donner’s direction of the film brings this out in a number of tense scenes, which evoke a real sense of fear. The location photography is beautiful and atmospheric, and adds to the sense of danger in some finely designed set-pieces.

A superb film in so many ways. There is said to be a new version being produced starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It will be interesting to see how he handles the character of the hunted man. I hope it stays similarly faithful to the book.




Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Writing A Penny Dreadful

A couple of years ago I wrote the first adventure of a Victorian vigilante called William Quest, a gentleman adventurer with a swordstick who seeks to right wrongs and even up the injustices of society. That book was called The Shadow of William Quest. Now I’ve written a sequel called Deadly Quest.deadly-quest-enhanced

The whole project arose from my interest in the Victorian underworld, I’ve always wanted to write a novel that is part detective story, part thriller, and which hearkens back to the traditions of the Victorian Penny Dreadful tales and the Newgate Novels.

Many a Victorian writer wrote these popular tales, which were the staple fiction diet of the newly-literate classes in 19th century England. I’ve read a lot of them over the years. The best ones are fast-moving, often sinister and have lots of action. They are occasionally subversive, pricking at the mores of the day with often undiluted social criticisms.

Most of the writers are forgotten these days, but some went on to great heights. Even Charles Dickens used elements of the Newgate novel in Oliver Twist.

The first novel was set in London and Norfolk. The new book Deadly Quest is set entirely in London, mostly down by the River Thames. I’ve tried to capture a real feeling of London in 1854. Fortunately, I’ve spent years studying Victorian history – I did it as a minor subject in my university degree. I’ve devoted a lot of time since to an expanded study of the Victorian underworld, particularly as regards London.

I’ve walked the streets and alleys used by my characters, by day and night. London has changed a great deal in 160 years, of course. Much of the Victorian cityscape has been bombed or swept away by  developers. The London that is in my imagination is more real to me now than the modern city. There are traces of Quest’s London still to be seen, but they get fewer year by year…

My novel has scenes in a notorious rookery of the time called Jacob’s Island. A district of appalling poverty in Victorian times, Charles Dickens visited it with a police guard. It features in the climax of Oliver Twist. It was already partially demolished by the 1850s. The area was bombed by the Luftwaffe in the London Blitz. Redevelopment accounted for much of the rest. Today that once dreadful slum is a development of luxury flats. You can still visit Jacob’s Island, but it takes quite a leap of imagination to get back to Victorian times.

One problem I encountered in my sequel was that I revealed virtually the whole of Mr Quest’s back story in the first novel, explaining why he decided to take the law into his own hands, fighting for truth and justice and so on. In the new book we start with a completely clean slate.

It’s my intention to do a whole series of William Quest novels, though the original conception of a Victorian avenger has changed since the first book. The outsider now finds himself working on both sides of the law. This wasn’t unusual in Penny Dreadful novels of the Victorian Age, where the author often found his or her villain transformed into the hero.

With the creation of e-book readers we are finding ourselves in a very similar situation to those Victorian readers. A whole new audience has appeared, eager for books. It seems to me that we should study the methods of the writers of Penny Dreadfuls and Pulp Fiction to cater for this expanding market.

They found a popularity after all, and created their own genres.

Deadly Quest is now available in paperback and as an eBook On Kindle. Click on the link to order.

This piece first appeared on Marni Graff’s excellent crime fiction review blog  

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘The Seasiders’ by A.J. Griffiths-Jones

Browsing recently, I came across A.J. Griffiths-Jones’ The Seasiders and am so glad I did. It’s one of the most original crime novels I’ve read and I loved it.   The Seasiders by [Griffiths-Jones, A.J.]

Initially, I was attracted by the title. As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, I can’t resist a crime novel set at the seaside. There’s something appealing about the setting of a resort, its feeling of being apart, unlike any inland town, its distinctive architecture and position on the edge.

The Seasiders is set in 1964, in a pleasant small holiday resort with cliffs and a harbour. We never learn the name or region. The reader sees various townsfolk through the eyes of Grace Thomas, in her forties, hard-working, on the frumpy side.  She and her amiable, lazy husband Dick, run the Sandybank boarding-house, overlooking the sea.

The summer season passes as the guests come and go by train, Grace has her weekly shampoo and set, loads the twin-tub and serves up her traditional English fare. And gradually she uncovers the secrets and quirky goings-on behind the net curtains of her home town,

A.J. Griffiths-Jones writes with a wonderful sense of place. She captures an authentic feeling of provincial life in the first half of the Sixties, making this a very enjoyable read for its social detail alone.

The narrative flows along, peopled with well-observed, believable characters. I found it hard to put down and had to ration chapters to make it last. This is a clever, deceptive novel with moments of black comedy. The Seasiders is hard to categorise, it subverts genres, never being quite what it seems. It reminded me of more than one stand-out Golden Age novel but to name them would give away too much about the plot.

I was also reminded of Colin Watson’s lovely detective series The Flaxborough Chronicles. Written in the 1960s, they too are set among the nefarious intrigues of small-town life. The Seasiders is a delightful read, beautifully written with a wicked sense of fun and unpredictable twists. I didn’t guess the reveal and loved its cleverness.

The Seasiders is the second in A.J. Griffiths-Jones’ mystery series. The first is The Villagers and The Congregation is available now on pre-order.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club begins on that most atmospheric of dates in Britain, Remembrance Day. The Great War casts a long shadow over the London setting, characters and much of the plot. The opening scene takes place on Armistice night when members are gathering at the Bellona Club in Piccadilly. A dinner is being given by Colonel Marchbanks for the friends of his son killed in action, among them is Lord Peter Wimsey.

As Wimsey chats at the bar to his chum, George Fentiman, it becomes apparent that George’s elderly grandfather, a fixture at the club, has died quietly in his armchair. We learn that his estranged sister also died that day in London. A fortune is at stake, dependant on which one of them died first.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club was published in 1928. The Great War had been over for a decade and some of the characters are irrevocably scarred by their experiences. George Fentiman has ‘nervous troubles,’ a euphemism for shell-shock, as well as having been gassed. Another pal is known as ‘Tin-tummy’ Challoner since the Somme, the club doctor was an army surgeon.

The Bellona’s secretary has only one sound arm and Sayers’ devotees will know how much Wimsey suffers from nightmares about his war. (Ngaio Marsh’s Chief Inspector Alleyn also had a ‘nervous breakdown’ after the Great War). Wimsey also suffers torments when he catches a murderer, thus sending someone to be hanged.

All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth.

An interesting comment made by Wimsey, as it was very likely an attitude Sayers heard at the time.

The novel gives a fascinating snapshot of the Twenties. Like so many men returned from the War, George Fentiman finds it difficult to get work in a changing society.

No wonder a man can’t get a decent job these days, with these hard-mouthed, cigarette-smoking females all over the place, pretending they’re geniuses and business women and all the rest of it.

The modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her. Money – money and notoriety – that’s all she’s after. That’s what we fought the War for – and that’s what we’ve come back to!

Presumably an in-joke as Sayers was a working woman herself. She also shows us the artists of the Chelsea set with their Bohemian life-style and society ladies’ trendy fads about health, medical cures and diet.

It’s often said of Sayers’ plots, ‘when you know how, you know who.’ Her means of murder is always of great significance to the plot. You feel she enjoyed working out her devious solutions. Despite the sombre atmosphere of Remembrance and London in November, there are moments of humour in this novel and vividly believable characters.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club is a delightful classic crime puzzle and a great insight into society after the First World War.

The new Hodder edition includes an interesting – if short – forward by Simon Brett.

The 1973 BBC drama of the novel is a very good adaptation by Anthony Steven, making only minor changes as scriptwriters must. Ian Carmichael, Derek Newark and Mark Eden gave ‘straight off the page’ performances as Lord Peter, Bunter and Inspector Charles Parker.




Filed under Uncategorized

Colin Dexter’s “The Wench is Dead”

The television version of the Inspector Morse mysteries, with the forceful central performance by John Thaw, had overshadowed the original novels in my mind. I hadn’t read any of the books for quite a time. We watched the TV version of The Wench is Dead the other night, so I thought this was an appropriate time to revisit the novel. The Wench is Dead (Inspector Morse Series Book 8) by [Dexter, Colin]

It’s an unusual book, for the crime is the murder of a woman on the Oxford Canal in 1859. Inspector Morse, hospitalised with a stomach ulcer, is given a book about this old crime, is intrigued, and begins to believe that the crime didn’t actually happen as described. With the help of the faithful Sergeant Lewis, a nurse, and a librarian, Morse investigates the crime.

Now, the idea of a present-day detective investigating an ancient crime isn’t exactly new. Josephine Tey used a hospitalised detective, Alan Grant, to investigate the guilt or innocence of Richard III in The Daughter of Time.

I have a great interest in the history of the British canals. I’ve ancestors who worked on them, and they were a staple of my childhood. Now, the surviving canals are mostly used by leisure craft, but in my childhood there were still working narrow boats, many towing butty boats full of coal. The people who worked the canals were quite wonderful. I used to cadge lifts on their boats.

Their world was not so different from that depicted so lovingly and accurately by Colin Dexter. The Victorian boatmen lived a rough life and were viewed with considerable suspicion by the land-bound.

I also have a great interest in Victorian crime, and it’s fascinating to re-examine the evidence on which men and women were convicted. There’s no doubt that the Victorian legal system was flawed against the defendant. At the period of Dexter’s novel, they were not even allowed to appear in court in their own defence. There’s no doubt that a great many innocent men and women were unjustly hanged.

These legal points form an important part of the way the story of The Wench is Dead is resolved, and it’s fascinating stuff. Dexter has a great skill in re-creating the extremely unfair world of Victorian jurisprudence.

It’s a terrific book which well-deserved winning the CWA Golden Dagger as Crime Novel of the Year. Well worth a read.

The television version scripted by the novelist Malcolm Bradbury, ( a professor at the University of East Anglia when I was doing my degree there) takes considerable liberties with Dexter’s original. Sergeant Lewis is missing, his place taken by a rookie cop. There’s a couple of love interests for Morse. Interesting departures from the original, and the film is very entertaining. The 1859 sequences are superbly presented. But a lot of the intimacy of Dexter’s novel is lost. John Thaw was on great form as Inspector Morse.

Do watch the film, it’s very worthwhile, but enjoy the beautifully written novel as well.





Filed under Uncategorized