Harry’s Game – The Television Series

A few weeks ago I wrote about Gerald Seymour’s classic thriller Harry’s Game.Product Details

Recently we watched the television series of the book, made by Yorkshire Television in 1982 – at a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still continuing.

For more about the story itself please see my previous blog.

It’s always interesting to see how a thriller is adapted for television, and Harry’s Game is more faithful to the book than most. Although some scenes were filmed around Belfast, notably in the City Centre and the Falls Road, much of the location filming was carried out near the Yorkshire TV studios in Leeds, on a housing estate scheduled for demolition.

The filming has a gritty reality. For those of us who lived through the times of the Troubles, it was uneasy seeing Saracen armoured cars on the streets again, the reconstructed riots and soldiers dashing from street corner to street corner on foot patrol.

Seymour’s book relies very much on tenseness rather than violence to make its point. The superb direction of the film series, by the admirable Lawrence Gordon Clark, provides tension by the spadeful. Even if you know the book well, the film keeps you on edge.

One reason is that it’s thankfully free of incidental music, though there is the haunting end theme by Clannad. I wish that more directors of film and television would realise the importance of silence. If you’re showing tense scenes you don’t need an intrusive studio orchestra.

Lawrence Gordon Clark made his reputation in film documentaries and this shows in the realism here.

Not having seen the series since it first aired, I was interested to see how the acting stood up over thirty years later. The film is very well cast. The late Ray Lonnen – is quite superb as Harry, giving very much a portrayal of the character in the novel. The IRA gunman Billy Downes is played by Derek Thompson, best known now for his long-running role as Charlie Fairhead in the British hospital series Casualty.

Both characters in the book are two sides of the same coin – family men as well as combatants in an miserable kind of warfare. To give this premise reality, you need two strong leads, and both Ray Lonnen and Derek Thompson are very believable.

The film series has a very strong supporting cast: Maggie Shevlin as Mrs Downes, a mother trapped in a tragic time; Gil Brailey as the woman who comes to know and understand Harry; and Tony Rohr as the IRA commander – a chilling and subtle portrait that lives in your thoughts long after the film has ended. There isn’t a poor performance in the whole series.

I seem to recall that the programme was shown over three consecutive nights on its first airing. It was later repeated as an edited down film, so if you’re buying this make sure you’re getting the original three-parter. The box set we have has a great interview with Ray Lonnen, who came across as a lovely chap.

Thirty-five years later this is British television at its best – a drama that makes you hold your breath.

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Peter Lovesey’s ‘The Reaper’

Peter Lovesey’s superb stand-alone, The Reaper, is an unusual take on ‘clerical crime’. It’s a novel I absolutely love and cannot recommend too highly. Although it was only published seventeen years ago, in 2000, The Reaper has much in common with certain Golden Age novels – it reminds me of Francis Iles’ work – and classic films.Product Details

This is the story of a very unusual rector, the Reverend Otis Joy, whose parish is the rural Wiltshire village of Foxford. The novel is prefaced with a revealing quotation from Samuel Butler:

Vouchsafe O Lord, to keep us this day without being found out.

Very apt because this story isn’t a whodunit, it’s a will-they-get-away-with-it? The rector is a serial-killer.

Have faith – we try hard not to reveal spoilers and ruin anyone’s enjoyment of a novel new to them. This information is in the synopsis and we see the rector spring into action as early as page eight.

Otis Joy is young, charming and sets the female hearts aflutter among his congregation. He fills pews, delivers charismatic, actor-style sermons and throws himself into good works. Almost all the villagers think he’s by far the best rector they’ve ever had.

Peter Lovesey has great fun in taking a classic English detective novel setting and turning it on its head. All the usual suspects are here, the vicar/rector himself being a stock character from vintage crime. Only this time, he’s our anti-hero. Love interest is supplied by young, unhappily married parishioner, Rachel and her femme fatale pal, Cynthia, the Chair of the Women’s Institute. Lovesey is wickedly good at female characters, not always the case with male writers.

The plot is played out amid the village year, the summer fête, harvest supper, jumble sales and carol-singing. The villagers are rife with speculation, gossip and a touch of malice. Where does their priest disappear to, on his day off?

The rector ad libs brilliantly through the unexpected scandal of the Bishop’s unfortunate demise. However things get complicated when the parish treasurer gives up his post and an obnoxious young accountant in the confirmation class, fancies taking it on.

The scene is set for a devilishly clever, black comedy, where you really shouldn’t laugh but you do. And you really shouldn’t root for an amoral serial-killer but you do. In the same way we cheer on the marvellous Denis Price in Ealing Studios’ Kind Hearts and Coronets. The rector’s life starts to unravel in a series of Peter Lovesey’s trademark twists, with a rising body count and desperate complications.

The novel unfolds like a deliciously dark Hitchcock. Alfred would have loved this. The Reaper belongs to that very special crime genre where humour meets murder. Hard to pull off and Peter Lovesey makes it look effortless. A genre better known on screen, in a sense, The Reaper belongs with The Ladykillers, Arsenic and Old Lace, Family Plot and even Frenzy. All of them fabulous.

The pace gets ever more frantic and I suspect many writers couldn’t deliver a sufficiently punchy ending. I recall reading an interview with Peter Lovesey where he said, as a child, he wanted to be a conjuror. And in a way, he is. A master of distraction, he’s also an incredible plate-spinner, always revealing the best trick of all at the end. The denouement is dazzling and the ending unexpected, very satisfying and absolutely right. Peter Lovesey always pulls it off.

 

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Clerical Crime For Easter

As it’s nearly Easter, this seems an appropriate time to look at an engaging sub-genre of detective fiction, the clerical mystery. From Cadfael to Sydney Chambers by way of Father Brown, a religious setting – and possibly sleuth – has an enduring popularity. I’m always drawn to this background, one of my favourite non-crime novelists is Anthony Trollope, known for his plotting – in both senses – among the clergy.Lincolnshire 149

It has been said that Vicarage is one of the most popular key words that will sell book titles, particularly in the United States. Why is this so appealing? Perhaps because in detective fiction, it’s an effective shorthand. There’s something about the word that conjures images of a traditional English mystery; summer fêtes on the village green, eccentric characters gossiping over the tea-cups, arsenic in the potted meat sandwiches or cyanide on the cake-stand.

The Murder At The Vicarage (published in 1930) is a prime example. One of Agatha Christie’s best-known novels, featuring Miss Marple at home in St Mary Mead, where a caller is murdered in the vicar’s study. Two more wonderful novels where things are far from rosy at the vicarage are Sheila Radley’s A Talent For Destruction (1982) and Redemption (1988) by the much-missed Jill McGown.

Redemption, which takes place largely on Christmas Eve, was reissued in 2015 with a snow-scene cover – presumably to catch the fashionable market for Christmas crime novels. The publishers chose to use its American alternative title Murder At The Old Vicarage. Nice enough but I prefer Jill McGown’s own choice with its deeper symbolism.

Most sleuths in clerical mysteries tend to be Anglican though Cadfael and Father Brown are Roman Catholic. The Church of England provides a background with a hierarchy and code of conduct which should not be transgressed. Both give plenty of scope for worldly motives. The rivalries and machinations of a cathedral close are not so different from those found in running a big business.

The Church also introduces a seemingly peaceful, ordered setting where the intrusion of murder is all the more shocking. This is heightened if the suspects are a closed circle among the clergy and lay-helpers.

The detective is usually an amateur sleuth, with some connection to that religious world, though not necessarily a full member. Writers have come up with some ingenious backgrounds for their protagonists. My absolute favourite series is the late Michael David Anthony’s superb mysteries, set around Canterbury Cathedral. His sleuth Colonel Richard Harrison is Secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board.

Kate Charles’s Book of Psalms series, features David Middleton-Brown, a Norfolk solicitor who is an expert on church architecture. D.M Greenwood’s sleuth is a deaconess, Theodora Braithwaite. Written in the 1990s before the ordination of women in the Church of England, Theodora was a semi-outsider, allowed so far but unable to be a priest. Kate Charles’s later, Callie Anson series features a woman vicar.York 003

Where the detective is part of an enclosed religious order, they are of necessity, a maverick who likes to visit the outside world. Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael is a herbalist who journeys around the Welsh Marches and Veronica Black’s Sister Joan runs errands from her convent on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.

Amateur sleuths invariably require a police ally – in Cadfael’s case in 12th century Shropshire, the Deputy Sheriff. Martha Ockley’s series features Faith Morgan, a former police detective who becomes a vicar. Incidentally, Martha Ockley is a pen-name of Rebecca Jenkins, daughter of a previous Bishop of Durham.

Even with police assistance, ‘clerical’ detectives tend to solve the crime with their knowledge of human foibles rather than forensics. In a sense these are morality tales for our time, often posing questions about moral versus legal justice. The serpent slithers into Eden and at the end of the novel, order is restored. Good people are left to pick up the pieces. Though all detective fiction is concerned with good and evil, a background of clerical crime can be uniquely effective.

Finally, a clerical mystery has a head-start when it comes to an evocative sense of place. The Norfolk Fenland village setting of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors is probably one of the atmospheric novels of the Golden Age. From a peaceful village church to the edgy central London of Alison Joseph’s Sister Agnes or even the cathedral precincts of Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a religious setting lends itself to be charming or shadowy, cosy or sinister, ancient or modern.

Here are a few detective/mystery novels we enjoyed, which happen to have some sort of clerical setting:

Catherine Aird The Religious Body (convent)

Alice Boatwright Under An English Heaven (country church)

Colin Dexter Service Of All The Dead (Oxford church)

Ann Granger Candle For A Corpse (country church)

S.T. Haymon Ritual Murder (cathedral)

P.D. James Death In Holy Orders (Anglican college)

Charles Palliser The Unburied (cathedral)

Ruth Rendell No Man’s Nightingale (Kingsmarkham church)

Robert Richardson An Act Of Evil (first published as The Latimer Mercy) (cathedral)

Next time we’ll look at my favourite clerical stand-alone, Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper.

 

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Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye

A Pocket Full of Rye was published in 1953 as an annual ‘Christie for Christmas,’ though it was first serialised that autumn in an abridged version in the Daily Express.Product Details

It’s one of several Christie titles to be taken from a British nursery rhyme, in this case, Sing a Song of Sixpence. This rhyme also inspired two of her short stories, Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1941) and Sing a Song of Sixpence (1929). John Curran, writing in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks says:

The dramatic impact of an innocent nursery rhyme transforming into a killer’s calling card is irresistible to an imaginative crime writer such as Agatha Christie… The attraction is obvious – the juxtaposition of the childlike and the chilling, the twisting of the mundane into the macabre.

I’ve always found nursery rhymes faintly sinister in their own right. Even in childhood they seemed to retain a hint of their often dark historical origins.

This is the sixth novel to feature Miss Marple, although she doesn’t appear until eighty pages in, after the third death has occurred. The plot concerns the murder of Rex Fortescue, a rich businessman, the suspects are his family and staff. The setting is a town in the Surrey stock-broker belt, twenty miles from London. Baydon Heath was almost entirely inhabited by rich city men.

We see much of the investigation through the eyes of Inspector Neele who is considerably more acute than some policemen of Miss Marple’s acquaintance, Inspector Slack springs to mind.

‘Inspector Neele had a smart soldierly appearance with crisp brown hair growing back from a rather low forehead. When he uttered the phrase “just a matter of routine” those addressed were wont to think spitefully: “And routine is about all you’re capable of!” They would have been quite wrong. Behind his unimaginative appearance, Inspector Neele was a highly imaginative thinker.’

There’s an interesting comment of the time when Rex Fortescue is taken ill in his office:

‘It has to be the right hospital,’ Miss Somers insisted, ‘or else they won’t come. Because of the National Health, I mean. It’s got to be in the area.’

(The free British National Health Service had begun five years earlier).

The murders are staged to follow the lines of the nursery rhyme. After the third death, Miss Marple arrives on the Fortescues’ door step and is soon invited to stay – which always amuses me. She comes because Gladys, the murdered parlourmaid had previously worked for her. Miss Marple trained her in service and wants to offer the police any helpful insights into her character which may assist in catching her killer.

Inspector Neele accepts her help rather more gratefully than Inspector Slack at St Mary Mead.

He had been in two minds at first how to treat her, but he quickly made up his mind. Miss Marple would be useful to him. She was upright, of unimpeachable rectitude, and she had, like most old ladies, time on her hands and an old maid’s nose for scenting bits of gossip. She’d get things out of servants and out of the women of the Fortescue family perhaps, that he and his policemen would never get. Talk, conjecture, reminiscences, repetitions of things said and done, out of it all she would pick the salient facts.

A great summing-up of Miss Marple’s M.O.

The contemptuous murder with a peg placed on the dead girl’s nose, makes Miss Marple unusually angry. There are parallels with The Body in the Library where again, the murder victim is a young naïve girl. She describes Gladys as rather pathetically stupid and obviously feels a sense of responsibility to bring her killer to justice. It’s one of those moments when behind the fluffy old lady, the reader glimpses someone implacable, the murderer’s Nemesis.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how much I disagree with the view that Christie didn’t write believable characters. She simply wrote with a light touch. Here’s a character described through Inspector Neele’s eyes:

‘He knew the type very well. It was the type that specialised in the young wives of rich and elderly men. Mr. Vivian Dubois, if this was he, had that rather forced masculinity which is, in reality, nothing of the kind. He was the type of man who “understands” women.’

All you need to know. Agatha Christie trusted her readers’ imagination to fill in the rest.

Although there’s much to enjoy, A Pocketful of Rye isn’t one of my favourite Christies. The murders mimicking the nursery rhyme is too contrived for me and I prefer Miss Marple in a village setting, rather than an enclosed household of suspects.

Having said that, it’s a fine whodunit with a cleverly deceptive plot. The psychology is excellent – as always – and the character of Gladys is very poignant, revealing a greater depth to Miss Marple.

 

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Colin Dexter’s “The Wench is Dead”

Following Colin Dexter’s death earlier this week, we thought we’d continue our tribute to his Inspector Morse novels by re-blogging our look at 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.

 

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Colin Dexter R.I.P.

We were very saddened to hear of the death today of Colin Dexter, at the age of 86.

His Inspector Morse novels were a considerable addition to crime literature, always wonderfully readable with great characterisation and superb plots.

They led, of course, to the much-loved television series with the late John Thaw, which was essential viewing for so many years. Colin Dexter’s Hitchcock-style brief appearances in each episode were always eagerly awaited.

Colin Dexter has left a wonderful legacy for all lovers of detective fiction.

 

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Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

Out of the 1970s came a series of what I call journalist thrillers, written with a considerable realism and usually by writers who’d been reporters. Perhaps the most famous example is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the JackalProduct Details

One of the very best is Gerald Seymour’s Harry’s Game, set mostly in Belfast during the Troubles of the mid 1970s, at a time when the warfare between the British Army,  the security services  and the IRA  was at its height.

Gerald Seymour was a reporter on the streets of Belfast at the time and it shows.

To pull off this sort of gritty realism you really need to have walked those troubled streets and estates of Belfast – the Falls Road, the Shankill, the Ardoyne, the Ballymurphy… Seymour did and you can feel the gripping fear that beset these places at the time in every page of  Harry’s Game – these aren’t experiences that can be faked. You need to have been there.

Interestingly, the violence level in Harry’s Game is not over-excessive. Characters are beaten and shot but it never goes beyond that. Harry’s Game is not as graphically violent as many a more modern thriller.

Gerald Seymour achieves menace by the tenseness of the writing, the dangers of men having to live double lives in hostile environments. Undercover work is rarely as well presented as here.

Harry’s Game begins with the assassination of a British cabinet minister by an IRA gunman, Billy Downes, who after the shooting returns to his home in Belfast. On the direct orders of the Prime Minister, and without telling the army or most of the security services, a section of British Intelligence decides to place an agent in Belfast to discover the identity of the assassin.

They use Harry Brown, an army captain of Irish ancestry, who’s previously lived undercover in the Middle East and had a subsequent breakdown. Harry moves into a boarding house off the Falls Road, posing as a merchant seaman with republican sympathies.

Meanwhile Billy Downes tries to sink back into his former life with his wife and children, though brought out at one point to kill a soldier.

There is a kind of parallel between Harry Brown and Billy Downes. Both work undercover for their respective armies. Both are fearful of discovery. Both are under enormous pressure as the people hunting them down get ever closer. Both are victims of a tragic conflict and are neither good nor bad in themselves.

This very well-crafted book was Gerald Seymour’s first novel, though it doesn’t come over as anything but skilled. For sheer suspense it’s hard to beat. I think it captures Belfast very well at that moment in time. Reading it again, now, and remembering those days, it’s all the more remarkable that, politically, Northern Ireland has moved on so much.

The book’s tragic ending still has the power to shock.

 

 

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Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers

What are Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers?

In my blog on Kellow Chesney’s book The Victorian Underworld I mentioned a few of the underworld’s “technical terms”. Kellow Chesney gives a very comprehensive list at the back of his book, but I think it’s only fair to give an explanation of the ones I mentioned.

They would have been very familiar terms to the characters in our books, and – certainly as far as William Quest goes – many of the characters in that series of books qualify to be included under one or more of these terms.

So here goes:

Magsmen – well basically a cheat or a sharper of the lowest kind – the sort who’d probably try and cheat you in a pub or out on the street. They’re still around so watch out!

Macers – Macers play the same sort of game as magsmen but at a slightly higher level. Think con-artist in modern terms and you’re more or less there.

Gonophs – gonophs are minor thieves and often the less skilled sort of pickpockets. Poverty drove many Victorians to crime in this way. My character William Quest starts his life on the streets as a gonoph, but becomes more skilled as time goes by.

Shofulmen – These individuals were purveyors of bad money. Not uncommon in the earlier decades of the century.

Screevers – Although it became an occasional name for pavement artists, the original screevers were writers of fake testimonials – quite a handy vocation in Victorian times when you might need a phony reference, especially if you’d been dismissed by your employer without a character. My character Jasper Feedle partakes in screeving amongst his other many talents.

If you want to enter the dangerous Victorian Underworld do seek out Kellow Chesney’s book – or if you want to walk the dangerous alleys of Victorian London do try my William Quest novels…

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The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

If any one book inspired me to write my William Quest Victorian thrillers it’s this one, Kellow Chesney’s very readable and scholarly book on the Victorian underworld. It was first published in 1970 and – for me – is the standard work on this fascinating subject.Victorian Underworld: Chesney, Kellow

I first encountered it when I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Although I majored in literature, I did a minor in nineteenth-century social history. The underworld was only a small part of my studies, but discovering Kellow Chesney’s book sent me of on a wider reading programme, both in secondary reading and the primary sources.

When I’m asked to recommend a book on the Victorian underworld this is the one I suggest as a first read. There are several other titles I like – and I hope to give these a mention on the blog in the coming months – but Kellow Chesney’s book is the most comprehensive and the best introduction.

It’s all here, starting with a walk through the mid-century streets of London – and how vividly the author portrays the place. This is no dull work of scholarship, it’s a page-turner as exciting as all the best mystery thrillers.

Then from the main streets frequented by the richest members of society, Kellow Chesney takes the reader to the borders of the underworld, the places where the dispossessed and those forced into crime to survive are obliged to lurk – and the boundaries between the rookeries and the smart streets of society are often back to back.

We are then taken on a journey into the rookeries themselves. Kellow Chesney conjures them up in all their awfulness. It is impossible to understand the Victorian criminal underworld unless you can understand the causes of crime.

Here are the beggars, the pick-pockets, the footpads and the swell mob. The skilled cracksmen who break the safes and steal the jewellery of the richest members of society. Here are the magsmen, gonophs, macers and shofulmen. The screevers and the Newgate mob. (I’ll talk more about these in a blog early next week.)

There were perhaps 80000 prostitutes in Victorian London alone. Kellow Chesney deals sympathetically with their plight, whether they were working the poorest streets in the East End for pennies or selling themselves for much more in the night houses in the West End.

The book is wonderfully illustrated, mostly with the sketches of the great Gustave Dore, adding to the feeling of being there so brilliantly evoked in Mr Chesney’s words. If you can, seek out one of the original hardback editions – the pictures are not so well reproduced in the paperback editions.

When I came to write William Quest, Kellow Chesney’s book was the first I re-read. If you want a good understanding of the Victorian underworld, I commend it to you.

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March 5, 2017 · 10:59 am