Monthly Archives: October 2017

MR James – A View From a Hill

Although not a story of crime, it seems appropriate to look at at least one M.R. James story on this blog – not least because Montague Rhodes James was himself a devotee of mystery fiction and particularly a fan of Sherlock Holmes.

But he is, of course, best known to us as the greatest writer of traditional English ghost stories. Ruth Rendell famously commented that “There are some authors one wishes one had never read in order to have the joy of reading them for the first time. For me, MR James is one of these”.

I couldn’t agree more – We’ve both loved MR James for a great many years and read and re-read his wonderful ghost stories, always finding some new delight. So with Halloween in mind, here goes.

Montague Rhodes James (1863-1936) was the finest medieval scholar of his generation, spending a great deal of his academic time seeking out and recording manuscripts that might otherwise have been lost. He was born near Bury St Edmunds, the son of a clergyman and, in the course of a long and distinguished life was assistant director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge and Provost of Eton.

It’s worth pointing all that out, because many of his leading characters are academics in a similar way, solitary characters who seek out lost manuscripts or who investigate strange elements of our mysterious past – encountering the forces of the supernatural along the way.

James wrote his ghost stories originally as entertainments for his college fellows, and would read them out loud by candlelight, sometimes around Christmas. Newspaper or magazine publication would follow and then volume publication in collections such as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Warning to the Curious and more. Collected Ghost Stories is a volume worth getting as it includes most of the canon, though there are a few omissions.

What I admire best about James, is that he would have been a superb writer of short stories whatever genre he had chosen. He is an exceptionally good writer. Some of his succinct descriptions of landscape are quite beautiful and atmospheric – whether the story be set in the English countryside or in the shadows of some great cathedral. He had the enviable gift of summoning up a sense of place in a very few words. There is also a subtlety that you rarely get with some writers in this genre and occasionally a delicious sense of humour.

A View From a Hill is not one of the strongest of James’s ghost stories from a chills point of view, but its depiction of rural Herefordshire is deftly done,  from its opening on a lonely railway halt to the views of a lonely landscape.

I’m not going to say too much about the story because you may want to read it and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. Sufficient to say that an academic, Fanshawe, visits a remote part of Herefordshire to visit his friend Squire Richards, the owner of a small country manor. Fanshawe’s host lends him a pair of binoculars with a mysterious provenance. But is what he sees of the landscape through the binoculars quite the same as what is actually there? Is Fulnaker Abbey just a pleasant old ruin or… And why is the sinister hanging tree on Gallows Hill only visible to Fanshawe? Ghost Stories for Christmas - The Definitive Collection (5-DVD set)

The BBC, in their splendid series of filmed Christmas ghost stories by M.R. James, did a version of A View From a Hill, though there were changes to the plot which took the story rather a way from what James actually wrote. Even so, as with all the films in the series, it was beautifully shot and well acted. Well worth seeing even if you admire the original more.

I see that BBC Four is showing it on Halloween night if you want to catch it. 

But do seek out the original stories which, around a century after they were penned, are as addictive and readable as ever. If you are reading them for the first time, I do envy you. If you are revisiting an old favourite, then enjoy these tales once more.

Do have a splendid Halloween…

 

 

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The Saint: Boodle by Leslie Charteris

Before I begin, I should say that Boodle was the original title of this collection of Saint short stories first published in 1934, being the thirteenth volume of the saga of Simon Templar. American and later British editions were re-titled The Saint Intervenes.

Annoyingly, later editions omitted one, and in some cases two, of the original stories. My copy of Boodle omits the tale “The Uncritical Publisher” (I wonder who that upset?) and “The Noble Sportsman” is lost from others. (Could it be because the latter is less than charitable about a British politician?)

Recent paperback and Kindle editions of The Saint Intervenes have happily restored these omissions.

The stories are wonderful examples of early Saint yarns and featured in some are Simon Templar’s delightful girlfriend Patricia Holm (surely the most delightful heroine in this type of literature) and the gum-chewing Inspector Claud Eustace Teal who, interestingly, works  with the Saint on a few occasions here.

What I love about the Saint is that – unlike, say, Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond – he has a social conscience, takes the part of the poor and the weak against the rich and the powerful.

There are no criminal masterminds for the Saint to combat in these stories. Instead, Simon Templar battles petty crooks exploiting the innocent, rich businessmen ripping off the poor, and dubious politicians. Good for the Saint! We could do with him now… The Saint Intervenes by [Charteris, Leslie]

It always amazes me when I remember that Leslie Charteris was a very young author when he created and wrote these early Saint adventures. I think barely twenty when he created the character and still a fair distance from thirty when he penned the stories in Boodle. He wrote with a confidence that many older and more experienced authors never achieve.

The stories were first written for magazine publication in Empire News in Britain. One tale  “The Man Who Liked Toys” had its first publication in The American Magazine as a standalone yarn with a different hero, but was re-jigged as a Saint story for this volume publication.

As with all Saint stories – and I have to confess to preferring the earlier ones like this volume, where Simon Templar is really well outside the law, though with a moral code of his own – the yarns in Boodle are unputdownable, superbly crafted, witty and inventive. Charteris was no hack writer, but a very skilled literary artist.

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Planning A Victorian Murder Mystery

There was never much plan to writing my first historical murder mystery, A Seaside Mourning. Like much of life, it just sort of happened. I’d always vaguely wished I could write a detective novel as they’re my favourite reading, along with the fat triple-decker classics of Victorian lit. I’d never written anything longer than free-lance articles and the very occasional short story but gradually you realise that the perfect time will never come. So one day, on impulse, I sat down and tried.Seaborough-Kindle-Cover

There’s always some impetus to a major new project. Mine was homesickness. We’d moved inland and I was missing the sea. So I started to think about setting about a murder mystery in a fictional Victorian seaside resort. Not somewhere popular and successful, no Scarborough, Llandudno or Brighton. Seaborough would be the sort of sleepy coastal town where the rise of the 19th century holiday trade never quite took off. Somewhere that never did get a pleasure pier and that today, would have lost its branch line in the Sixties. The setting became much-missed East Devon, home of my ancestors, two Victorian police constables among them.

The next point to decide on was the decade. I knew I didn’t want to venture into Sherlock Holmes territory, much as I love reading Doyle. The 1880s and 90s had such a flood of early technology and changing attitudes – widespread use of the telephone, bicycles, typewriters, women’s suffrage and so on – that in a way, the times felt too modern to appeal. The 1860s seemed to be a popular setting with historical crime authors so I went for the 1870s, which was fairly underused. I decided to stick to the first half of the decade so the detectives wouldn’t have the telephone.

I’ve always liked novels and dramas about the goings-on, plots, schemes and petty rivalries in small-town life. The secrets, large and small, in a place where its leading characters are known to everyone, at least by reputation. And for the middle-classes of Victorian Britain, reputation mattered. Without the safety-net of a welfare state, money and status was the hedge against going under. Fear would have been ever present. A return to Victorian Values, anyone?

The theme for A Seaside Mourning became murder and intrigue in a small community which is beginning to change. With apologies to Mrs Gaskell, a sort of Cranford with crime. Beneath the veneer of respectability, the townsfolk are gossiping over their tea cups and watching behind the Nottingham lace curtains.

As the title implies, the background to the story is the Victorian way of death, a subject that’s always fascinated me. No one truly mourns the first victim, despite all the macabre ritual of an elaborate funeral. Even Inspector Josiah Abbs is a widower, haunted by his wife’s death.

And after the murders, Seaborough, Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Ned Reeve, will never be quite the same again…

A Seaside Mourning was written as a stand-alone, then I had an idea for an Inspector Abbs novella, A Christmas Malice, set in Norfolk. This was still never intended to be a series as I went on to write a 1930s mystery and was de-railed by ill-health.  Abbs and Reeve have never quite gone away, though. A new full-length mystery is under way. This one takes them to Scotland Yard and should be out in the summer of 2018.

 

 

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It’s Dark Outside – Sixties TV Drama

Recently we’ve had a wonderful time watching It’s Dark Outside, an early 1960s police drama that’s undeservedly obscure. Unlike most Sixties’ series, neither of us can recall watching this the first time round, though we both think our families did. I was just too young to remember, though have the vaguest recall that my family watched the sequel Mr Rose.It's Dark Outside [DVD] [1964]

It’s Dark Outside – a great title – was made by Granada and broadcast in 1964. This is a stylish production, set off by a memorable jazz theme tune written by Derek Hilton. The lead, Chief Inspector Rose of Scotland Yard, was played by William Mervyn, against his usual type of amiable, oldish upper-class gents. I’ve always remembered him fondly from the Sixties as the bishop in the sit-com All Gas and Gaiters. Chief Inspector Rose is still urbane and upper-class, frequenting gentlemen’s clubs but here his character is cool and abrasive, at times pompous. He’s a very astute detective.

Rose’s sidekick was played in the first series by a young Keith Barron, as Sergeant Swift. Superbly acted, Swift is an interesting character, an outsider, prickly, suspicious, determined and good at his job. The dynamic between the two detectives is very well done. Swift has a working-class defensiveness and Rose often demolishes him with a steely remark. You feel that Sergeant Swift partly despises Rose’s comfortable world and partly wishes he could belong. They respect each other’s ability and Rose is a fair man, often coming to Swift’s rescue in various ways.

The characters of Charles Rose and John Swift first appeared in an earlier drama, The  Odd Man, which ran from 1960-3. The eponymous lead was not Chief Inspector Rose, but a theatrical agent and sometime amateur detective, played by Geoffrey Toone and later Edwin Richfield, two more good character actors. Rose and Swift, appearing in the later series, were popular enough to get their own spin-off. (Keith Barron replaced Alan Tilvern in the final series). How we wish we could see this and many other series, criminally wiped – to reuse the tape – in the Sixties and even beyond.

Though Chief Inspector Rose and Sergeant Swift share the lead credits, It’s Dark Outside is something of an ensemble drama with Rose’s friends, Anthony and Alice Brand, as prominent support throughout the first series. Anthony Brand, played by John Carson, is a leading Q.C. who is very involved with a human rights organisation.

John Carson has been one of my favourite character actors (quite a long list, mind) for decades. He had a compelling presence and a rich, attractive voice, often likened to that of James Mason. A versatile actor, often cast as a memorable villain, though I always remember him as playing my favourite version of Mr Knightley in a 1972 BBC production of  Emma.

His wife Alice, a freelance journalist, is played by June Tobin. She too had a great screen presence, intelligent and sultry in that late fifties/early sixties style epitomised by Honor Blackman, Diana Dors and Sue Lloyd among others. I’ve really enjoyed watching her work, which was unfamiliar to me.

The acting is first class throughout, though I’d say Keith Barron had the stand-out performance, against stiff competition. The series has some terrific guest stars such as Tony Steedman, Ronald Radd, Diana Coupland, Kenneth Colley and a very young James Bolam.

Created by Marc Brandel, It’s Dark Outside is wonderfully written with edgy, subtle, crime stories that pull no punches. This was writing for the grown-ups. The beginning of the BBC’s long glory days when they assumed they were creating drama for intelligent viewers with a proper attention-span. Scenes are longer than directors would ever dare linger these days and each episode feels more like a play than television. Being completely studio-bound, in grainy black and white just adds to the absorbing atmosphere, a sort of British noir meets kitchen sink drama.

Episodes give original slants to tough subject-matter including paedophile murder, terrorism, human rights, immigration and race crime. Week after week they seemed uncannily topical. A reminder that essentially, in fifty years, things have changed less than we like to think.

Unusually for the Sixties, It’s Dark Outside has a definite story arc. This builds to a stunning series finale in episode 8. Neither of us saw a shocking, brilliantly written twist coming. These days there’d be spoilers everywhere. I’m sure the TV Times was more discreet back then.

The box-set concludes with sadly the only two surviving episodes from the second series. Only Chief Inspector Rose remains and in this series he was joined by Anthony Ainley, Veronica Strong and John Stratton. Again written by Marc Brandel, they’re extremely good and it looked as though the new series was going for a slightly lighter feel. There are some amusing scenes with Anthony Ainley’s character, Detective-Sergeant Hunter, who is none too pleased to be picked by Rose as his new assistant.

Marc Brandel was a superb script-writer. It’s frustrating that none of us will ever see the lost episodes. It’s Dark Outside is a fascinating survival of television history and sheer quality. Well worth seeking out.

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Finding Novel Locations

We’ve been in York, searching out locations for the third William Quest novel. Interesting to walk around a city getting atmosphere for an historical thriller set in 1854. As an historical location, York is easier than most. Such a lot survives, compared to other places in Britain.

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York Minster

In the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest, my hero is mostly adventuring in London – a place which has changed a great deal since the mid-Victorian period. But the Victorian elements can still be sought out even there, though they are few and far between. I’ve spent such a lot of years studying Victorian London that it seems very familiar to me. Indeed, modern London seems strange whenever I’m there.

York is a joy. Although there has been modern development and new shop fascias, many of the streets would still be recognisable to a man from 1854. In my book, William Quest has never been to York before, so he’s lost one of the great advantages he’s had while  carrying out his often dubious activities in London – which he knows like the back of his hand.

For anyone who’s never encountered William Quest, he’s a mysterious figure, usually armed with a pistol and a swordstick, who rights wrongs, defends the weak against the strong, fights corruptions and has his own occasional vigilante methods of dealing with wrongdoers.

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Grape Lane

 

But in this book he’s having to take on the role of detective as well, solving a puzzle that has baffled the citizens of York…

And it means peril, high adventure and a sinister conspiracy….

Having spent the past couple of months writing the third Quest (no title as yet), it’s great to revisit familiar old haunts in York – though I confess to spending a lot of time in bookshops. York has some great second-hand bookshops!York October 2017 011

 

 

 

We go to York quite often and always do a lot of walking around the streets, but I felt I was at the point in the novel where I wanted to see again some of the places I’d mentioned in the chapters written so far. There is one particular street, Tanner Row, which appears in the book and which I didn’t really know at all  – an important street leading to what was once York’s original railway station. The one someone like Quest would have used in 1854.

This original railway station was within the city walls, the present station, though Victorian and magnificent is outside the walls. Much of the old station still exists, though it’s been revamped as offices for the city council.

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Tanner Row

Nearer to the Minster, we walked the streets where the mystery occurs which provides my novel with its plot – the area around Stonegate and Grape Lane. I know these streets very well, but it was valuable to stroll through them with my characters in mind. It’s the little details that make the difference when you are imagining fictional characters in a real landscape.

Most of my novels are set in real places. I often get ideas for stories by just going for a walk. The whole story-line of my 1930’s Scottish novel Balmoral Kill changed when I walked around Loch Muick in the Highlands. You could re-enact the final duel in that novel across a real landscape if you wanted.

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The Old Railway Station

I find as a writer that just going out for a walk is the greatest source of inspiration.

Some areas of York have changed since the 1850s. The streets known as the Water Lanes, down on the River Ouse, were a rookery at that time.  In the 1870s a new road, Clifford Street, was driven through and much of the rest redeveloped. It’s still Victorian and charming to walk through, but not quite the setting Quest would have known.

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On the city walls

Much the same happened in London. Jacob’s Island, where my book Deadly Quest comes to an end, was a much viler rookery than the Water Lanes. Charles Dickens used it for the ending of Oliver Twist, where it is Fagin’s final lair. Today Jacob’s Island is full of very expensive luxury apartments. If the ghosts of the poor devils who lived in the diseased original Island could come back and see it, I do wonder what they would think?

I came back from York enthused by what I’d seen. The visit spurred me on to finish the book. I hope it will be out at the turn of the year.

Though I still don’t have a title!

If you haven’t read the first two William Quest novels, there are links below. Both are available in paperback and on Kindle – and there’s a free Kindle App available for your Smartphones if you like to read on the move.

 

 

 

 

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Hammer’s “Hound of the Baskervilles”

Very slight spoiler alert, but I suspect most readers will be familiar with the tale – so here goes.

Hammer film’s 1959 film version of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, has all the hallmarks of Hammer productions during its gory days (pun intended!)The Hound of the Baskervilles [Blu-ray]

We watched it again the other day. Like most Hammer productions based on novels, it takes considerable liberties with the plot. That being said, it is terrific fun and has the great merit of really good portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, with the wonderful Peter Cushing as the detective and Andre Morell as Watson.

Peter Cushing, of course, did another version of this classic “tail” for the BBC several years later – probably the most faithful version yet filmed, actually using real Dartmoor locations. I saw portions of that one being filmed during my Dartmoor rambles at the time.

Apart from a couple of stock-shots, Hammer went nowhere near Dartmoor. Dartmoor in this production comes courtesy of Surrey’s Chobham Common and Frensham Ponds, plus a lot of studio exteriors. None of the locations look much like Dartmoor. But then Hammer’s Dracula film sets probably only bear a passing resemblance to Transylvania.

This Hammer version might be slightly hammy, but is saved by the lead actors, who also include Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, John Le Mesurier (best known as Sergeant Wilson in the classic Dad’s Army) as the butler Barrymore, Ewen Solon as Stapleton and Miles Malleson, doing his familiar doddery old fool act, as Frankland – elevated to a bishopric in this telling.

As with most Hammer films there is a voluptuous leading lady, in this case Marla Landi as Beryl Stapleton. Miss Landi (who went on in real life to marry the baronet Sir Francis Dashwood, descendant of that famous gent in history with Hellfire Club connections), plays the role with her own very strong Italian accent, though her father, Stapleton, is clearly English. And in the film she is Stapleton’s daughter, rather than his wife (posing as a sister) as she does in the book.

Normally I’d quibble a bit at this bit of casting, but Miss Landi is great fun as Baskerville’s femme fatale. And a Hammer film without a bit of sex appeal wouldn’t be a Hammer film.

The film, as I’ve suggested, does take considerable liberties with the plot of the novel: enter a tarantula spider, a ruined abbey, Holmes trapped down a Dartmoor tin mine, ritual sacrifice, Frankland as the collector of butterflies rather than Stapleton, Sir Henry Baskerville with a serious heart condition, a malevolent Miss Stapleton – the list goes on.

But then, if you want a more faithful rendition seek out Peter Cushing’s BBC version. The Hammer version is not one for the Holmesian purist, but if you want a bit of escapist fun then Hammer’s attempt passes an amusing couple of hours.

And the Hammer brand is now in itself iconic. During their heyday they produced great entertainment. This Hound, for all the liberties it takes, does give a real flavour of the book and it probably introduced new readers to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Its absurdities are no worse than those taken in the recent modern day Sherlock and similar re-tellings.

Archive blog: “The Country of the Hound of the Baskervilles” May 2015.

 

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