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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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Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’

Published in 1937, Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, known for its intricate plot and exotic setting. Murder takes place aboard the Karnak, a luxurious Nile steamer on a week’s round-trip, sailing to Wâdi Halfa and the Second Cataract, with excursions en route to the spectacular temples of Abu Simbel.Death on the Nile (Poirot) (Hercule Poirot Series Book 17) by [Christie, Agatha]

Hercule Poirot is one of the passengers, escaping from the fogs, the greyness, the monotony of the constantly falling rain of a London winter. As always, he is dressed immaculately to suit the occasion.

He wore a white silk suit, carefully pressed, and a panama hat, and carried a highly ornamental fly whisk with a sham amber handle.

During an excursion, Poirot sports a white suit, pink shirt, large black bow tie and a white topee.

The first part of the novel introduces us to most of the passengers in a series of vividly-drawn vignettes. Some scenes are quite brief, though Agatha Christie makes every word tell with her usual economy of style. The lynch-pin of the Nile journey will be Linnet Ridgeway, a young heiress and society beauty, soon to be married and visiting Egypt on her honeymoon.

Readers can be fairly sure from the start that Linnet is going to be the murder victim. We’re shown an overwhelming reason for one character to hate her and given tantalising hints that others have a strong motive to remove her. It’s interesting that the original jacket copy on the Collins facsimile edition only implies that Linnet Ridgeway will be the victim. Much better than today’s blurbs which frequently give away too much of the plot.

When the passengers are gathered at their hotel, Poirot is aware of a feeling of inexorable danger, an inevitability about what lies ahead. There are indications throughout Agatha Christie’s writing that she was intrigued by the notion of fate – perhaps due to her extensive travels in the Middle East. Her titles Appointment With Death, The Moving Finger and Postern of Fate hark back to this theme.

Christie builds the growing tension skilfully for 130 pages until the murder finally takes place. These days I seem to see a lot of reviews that complain of a slow pace in detective novels. Writing guides deem it essential to hook the reader with instant compelling action. Must be my age, because I like crime fiction where the author takes all the space they wish to show characters and setting. I really enjoy a lengthy build-up – a trademark of superb crime writers such as P.D James – and think currently fashionable style ‘rules’ are a kind of dumbing down, symptomatic of our sound-bite society.

The suspects being trapped together on the steamer, makes an interesting variation on the classic enclosed country house setting. The Karnak is large enough to have an evocative thirties’ glamour with dressing cabins, an observation saloon and smoking room, yet compact enough to feel claustrophobic. The descriptions of temple visits, the heat and passing scenery feel authentic, based as they must have been on the author’s memories.

At the half-way point, an old friend of Poirot joins the steamer for the return journey. Colonel Race assisted Poirot in Cards on the Table, published a year earlier and aids him again in the investigation. Race, a senior British agent, is on board on his own mission. A foreshadowing of the growing awareness of the coming war and the addition of enemy agents into Agatha Christie’s novels. (This reaches its height in N or M? Published in 1941).

The plot is unusually complex for Christie, with several small mysteries for Poirot to unravel along the way. Despite the tense atmosphere, Christie manages to include some quiet humour and more than one romance. Her liking for romance and happiness for young people shines through, as it does in many of her novels. It’s evident that Christie had great sympathy for youth, particularly the awkward and the over-looked.

The break-up of her marriage to Archie Christie and her life-long shyness are widely known. Even when happily settled with Max Mallowan, it’s easy to imagine Agatha Christie being the quiet people-watcher in the corner. Noticing what others miss, full of compassion and kindness, very like Hercule Poirot.

The central murder plot stands or falls, more than most, on its believable psychology. It succeeds magnificently, this is Christie’s understanding of human nature at its most acute. A brilliantly cunning plot device is one that she used in another novel – which of course, I won’t mention! Nothing wrong with authors doing a spot of recycling, especially when they trail-blazed the twists in the first place.

Death on the Nile is acclaimed as one of Agatha Christie’s greatest triumphs. I hadn’t read it since my teens and had a job to put it down. A deeply satisfying read.

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The Limehouse Golem

Last week, we went to see the film The Limehouse Golem, based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which I blogged about a couple of years ago. (I’ve put my original blog on the novel below to save you searching.) The Limehouse Golem [DVD] [2017]

It’s a terrific take on the novel, with some great acting, a literate script by Jane Goldman, and some excellent sets that take you right back into Victorian London. The photography is superb.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, because I’ve mentioned the salient parts in the book blog below. Jane Goldman has made a few minor alterations to the plot for film purposes, but these make no difference to the story.

I’m always wary of filmed Victorian crime stories, because the slightest error jars. But there are no errors here. I was completely absorbed by the telling of the tale. Rarely have I seen a crime novel set in this period so well done.

This film stars Bill Nighy as Inspector Kildare, his role slightly expanded from the novel. The part was to have been played by Alan Rickman – one of our favourite actors – who sadly died early in the project. But Nighy makes an excellent Kildare, every inch the Victorian policeman. And how good to see Nighy get a lead credit.

There’s a great deal of British acting talent here – familiar faces such as Daniel Mays, Clive Russell, Eddie Marsan and Henry Goodman. All looking as though they’ve emerged from the streets of Limehouse.

But the film rises with the talents of two newcomers to me. Douglas Booth is quite stunning in the role of Dan Leno, totally believable as perhaps the greatest of music hall showmen. I’ve always had a great interest in Leno, a fascinating individual who forged the way we perceive popular entertainment of this kind, from straight entertainment, jests and songs, pantomime to burlesque, Leno was the grand master. His relatively early death in 1904 shocked the nation.

The tragedy of music hall before this period is that we have only scratchy recordings of some of the best acts (we’ve got just such a recording of Leno). Not being able to see these stars visually makes it hard to grasp how good they might have been. I’m old enough to have seen some of the early twentieth century stars live on the stage. They were good indeed – we’ll not see their likes again. But few of the Victorians were filmed, then only silently.

But Douglas Booth surely captures a great deal of Leno’s magic. Here’s an actor to watch out for in the future.

The key role of Elizabeth Cree goes to Olivia Cooke. Cooke is as good as Booth in portraying the growing confidence of a music hall singer, caught up in the murderous twists of the tale.

Try and see it at the cinema if you can with an audience around you – more like a music hall atmosphere than watching it at home on DVD.

Though we’ll be adding it to our DVD collection when it’s out.

Here’s my blog on the original novel…

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has now been out for over twenty years. Given my interests in Victorian crime and the history of the music hall I’ve always been meaning to read it.

Now I’ve finally got round to it and I can say that it’s a terrific read, evoking a real feel of the Victorian underworld in Ackroyd’s usual and very vivid writing style.

As a writer Ackroyd is well-known not just as a novelist but as an historian and biographer. If you haven’t read it I commend to you his London – A biography – perhaps the best of all recent histories of the city.

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is not your usual crime read. It’s a deeply literary novel which happens to be about crime and the low-life and middle-class existence of Victorian London. And there’s a lot more to it than that. Ackroyd has a way of plunging you deep into this imagined vision of a past age.

For those who don’t know, Dan Leno was perhaps the greatest star of Victorian music hall. But he is not the only real-life character encountered in this book. We also see the struggling writer George Gissing and a glimpse of Karl Marx during his London exile.

This is a book which begins with a hanging and works backwards. We see how his key character Elizabeth Cree progresses as a music hall turn, the murders of a serial killer, the legend of the Jewish golem, a trial at the Old Bailey and pages from the diary of John Cree delineating many aspects of Victorian life – for this is a novel of multiple viewpoints.

Ackroyd is so very good at exploring the sinister hinterlands of the Victorian underworld. The author’s great knowledge of London shines through on every page. Terrible secrets are revealed and the ending is just stunning.

A novel you’ll want to read more than once – thoroughly recommended!

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The Holly House Mystery On Sale

Our second novella, ‘The Holly House Mystery’ is on sale at only 99 pence/cents. Offer ends on the 25th September.

“Friends, please accept this, the only intimation!”

‘The Holly House Mystery’ is set in 1931 and is the second outing for Inspector Eddie Chance of Tennysham-on-sea in Sussex.

This is our take on a classic Golden Age-style murder mystery, set at a winter country house-party. Featuring the usual suspects – including the host, the male secretary, the femme fatale, the young couple and the butler – who murdered the house-maid found in the priory ruins and why?

The setting of Holly House was loosely inspired by the real-life Michelham Priory in present-day East Sussex. (Never taken to the idea of my birth county being split). Michelham Priory is owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society and open to the public. See http://www.sussexpast.co.uk for details.

Originally an Augustinian foundation and ravaged in the Dissolution, today’s Michelham Priory is a lovely Tudor country house. The site is idyllic, a 7 acre near-island, surrounded by England’s longest medieval moat that still has water. A 14th century gatehouse and a picturesque water-mill have survived. The moat is a haven for wildlife and wild flowers and the gardens are glorious, including a medieval-style physic garden. (They also have delicious baking in the tea-room).

Places to visit in Sussex Michelham Priory

The enclosed nature of the setting inspired our homage to the popular vintage murder mystery with a limited number of suspects.

The length is 34,000+ words – ideal for a commute or a cosy couple of evenings.

We hope you enjoy – and would really appreciate any reviews as this helps all indie authors keep writing.

The next full-length Inspector Chance mystery will be out next year.

Here’s the link if you want to order a copy…

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‘The Killings at Badger’s Drift’ by Caroline Graham

When a successful television crime drama started out based on a series of novels, the original books can sometimes be overshadowed. Especially when the drama series has the enduring popularity of Midsomer Murders, still going strong after twenty years and sold worldwide.

We love to curl up with Midsomer, both with John Nettles and Neil Dudgeon. But it’s interesting to strip away all thoughts of Midsomer Murders and re-read Caroline Graham’s The Killings at Badger’s Drift. This was her first outing for Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy. Our edition, published by Headline in 2016, has the bonus of a foreword by John Nettles, who played Tom Barnaby.

Published in 1987, ten years before the television series began, it’s easy to forget what a superb whodunit this is. Though I do recall finding this in the library in the ’80s and thinking it exceptionally good. Caroline Graham used the ever popular setting of murder in a seemingly idyllic village . Probably my favourite setting – like legions of fans, I love classic British detective novels where murder sends shock-waves through a small, rural community.

Miss Simpson, a well-liked, retired village schoolmistress is found dead in her cottage. A death that at first passes for natural causes, until her old friend Miss Bellringer, uneasy at signs that Miss Simpson behaved out of character, persuades the police to investigate.

So what sets The Killings at Badger’s Drift apart from countless other English village mysteries? Elegant writing with an interesting detective and sidekick, well-drawn characters, a strong plot and appealing setting. All a necessity for a decent crime novel, you might say. We could all reel off a quick dozen novelists who deliver all that.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is lifted to another level by the author’s sly wit and moments of humour. The quirkiness of the television series is there, without its trademark bizarre murder methods. Some characters are almost Dickensian-style grotesques, yet they are horribly believable.

I loved the way in which Caroline Graham deals at length with some secondary characters. You get vivid glimpses of their back story and understand how life has shaped them. This reminded me of P.D. James’s detective novels. I always felt it was one of her greatest strengths and in Caroline Graham too, this adds an absorbing depth to the story.

Badgers Drift is St Mary Mead updated. There are council houses and commuters, modern bungalows with over-manicured gardens around the picturesque old cottages with their bee-hives. (The council houses were there in pre-war mysteries though rarely mentioned). Miss Marple would have said that the wickedness hiding beneath the surface of village life is unchanged.

Caroline Graham came up with a fairly underused premise for her series detective – at least in modern times. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is notable for his ordinariness. He’s a decent chap, happily married to Joyce and affectionate father to their daughter Cully. A member of the local art club and keen gardener, he isn’t a troubled maverick, doesn’t have a drink problem and the nearest his family gets to dysfunctional is his wife’s terrible cooking.

There’s more to him than can be shown within the limits of television, though John Nettles caught the essence of the character really well. We learn that earlier in his career, Barnaby was badly affected by certain aspects of his work and discover how he came to terms with his life. He’s an interesting character with a pithy line in put-downs – especially when he needs his indigestion tablets.

The Chief could be very terse at times. He was a big, burly man with an air of calm paternalism which had seduced far sharper men than Gavin Troy into voicing opinions which had then been trounced to smithereens.

Sergeant Gavin Troy is a wonderful contrast to Barnaby. Much younger, he’s torn between wanting to impress his boss and convinced he’s the coming man. Prone to envy and sneering, his thoughts are very funny and despite his prejudices, he’s somehow endearing. In his foreword, John Nettles explains how Troy’s character was toned down for the television series. This is from when Miss Bellringer calls at the police station and speaks to Troy:

The sergeant pretended he had forgotten her name. Occasionally this simple manoeuvre caused people to wonder if their visit was really worth the bother and to drift off, thus saving unnecessary paperwork.

The foreword is well worth having. John Nettles adds some interesting background to his rôle and warmly admires Caroline Graham’s work. He’s one of a select few actors who’ve played two lead detectives in British television series, being fondly remembered as Bergerac in the 1980s.

The novel is intricately plotted with plenty of alibis and red herrings. A point that intrigued me was that Barnaby quickly pieces together the likely motive for the first murder. It’s actually mentioned in the jacket copy. This seems a bold move by the author when the reason for murder is mostly a large part of the final reveal – often, discovering the motive is what finally gives the game away. It does make the plot less formulaic and knowing – partially – why Miss Simpson had to die, doesn’t detract in the slightest from the thrill of the chase.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is a masterclass in whodunit writing and deserves its place on the CWA list of The 100 Best Crime Novels Of All Time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘The Spy’s Wife’ by Reginald Hill

The empty avenue curved away between green-hedged villas, quiet and sinister as an old film set. Then a dog padded purposefully out of a gateway, and a milk-float whined along the gutter.

The Spy’s Wife was published in 1980 as one of Reginald Hill’s stand-alones. Much as I love his acclaimed Dalziel and Pascoe police procedural series, this is one of my favourites among his canon. Throughout his writing career, begun in 1970, Hill was writing stand-alones alongside his series, usually thrillers. In the ’70s and ‘8os, these were often brought out under his pen-name Patrick Ruell, though latterly they’ve been repackaged.

Reginald Hill was a very interesting thriller-writer and if you’ve only read Dalziel and Pascoe, it’s well-worth seeking out these other titles. I think it’s fair to say his early thrillers are less well-known than his detective fiction and later standalones such as his final novel, The Woodcutter. As far as I know, The Spy’s Wife was always published under his real name.

The Spy’s Wife isn’t an easy novel to describe as there’s a great deal to uncover. The title is a conundrum in itself, being both apt and misleading. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of Molly Keatley, a happily-married housewife in her thirties. Her cosy life in Westcliff-on-Sea collapses like a house of cards one morning when her husband Sam returns home for a few minutes and dashes off again. Her next caller informs her that Sam is a Soviet spy and traitor. No spoiler – this comes on the first page.

This is a character-driven narrative and despite a compelling plot, it’s far from your average thriller. Neither can it truly be described as an espionage novel, although an investigator from a shadowy government department – never named as M.I.5 – plays a major role. There’s no tradecraft here. This is about the nature of lies, truth and illusion. The human cost of spying as seen by an outsider.

Molly is a Yorkshire lass who, like many young girls in the Swinging Sixties, left her home town to work amid the beckoning lights of London. In the novel she returns to her ageing parents in Doncaster, where Reginald Hill taught for many years as a college lecturer. His affection for Yorkshire folk with their no nonsense attitude and core of pragmatic, understated stoicism shines through the novel. At times, Molly’s stock of pithy, common sense is reminiscent of a certain Fat Man, beloved of Hill’s fans.

There’s a great deal of reflection, wisdom and humour in this novel. It’s concerned with the accommodations we all must make as we navigate the pot-holes and craters on our path. The choices we make as we try to find the best way to get by in this baffling business we call life. Molly gets to revisit the road not taken and rediscovers an inner strength as she determines to take control of events. A profound and thought-provoking read, within a page-turner of a story that’s tense and unpredictable.

Re-reading The Spy’s Wife after many years, I was so impressed with how well Reginald Hill could write about women. All the more so, as I’ve never enjoyed Ellie Pascoe in the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. My heart always sank when she made an entrance and the titles where she played a major part, such as Arms and the Women were the ones I enjoyed least. To be fair, I think she was all too familiar, just not my type!

Molly Keatley’s ‘voice’ is completely believable. She springs off the page, as do all the characters, particularly Molly’s parents. As I read, I kept thinking what a good television drama this would make. Didn’t get as far as imagining casting. My fantasy casting – a game we often play – mostly involves actors long gone or retired.

The novel’s sense of place is wonderful. When written, of course, Reginald Hill was looking back only a few years and he captured life in the 1970s, over-hung by the Cold War, in evocative detail. I loved every page and despite recalling the main plot points, found it hard to put down.

Fans of Dalziel and Pascoe know Reginald Hill’s writing was intelligent and compassionate. Throughout The Spy’s Wife, there’s an underlying sense of his wisdom and humanity. This is the quality of writing that makes the prejudice against ‘genre’ novels, as opposed to ‘literary’ novels, look ridiculous.

At the time of posting, The Spy’s Wife isn’t out as an ebook and – as far as I know – is only available new from American publishers Felony & Mayhem. I’m greatly indebted to them for several much-wanted British titles which should still be in print in the U.K. (Though I wish they wouldn’t update Golden Age novels to politically correct language). And this time, their jacket copy is a little misleading. The Keatleys live in a suburb of Southend-on-Sea, not London.

 Be prepared to go in a different direction from thriller/espionage labels and The Spy’s Wife is a superb read. Highly recommended.

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The Toff at Butlin’s by John Creasey

John Creasey was a writing phenomenon, one of the most prolific authors of all time, with at least 700 titles published. Creasey was not only prolific, he was fast. He could write two or three full-length novels in a week. To read them, you would never know that they were written at speed. They are quality examples of crime fiction.

Although, Creasey is best known as a crime writer, he also wrote romances, westerns, thrillers – the cross-genre list goes on. As a crime writer, Creasey is up there with the best. Think of his creations; The Baron, The Toff, Gideon of the Yard, Inspector West, the Department Z novels – the list goes on and on.

When I was younger I used to see dozens of Creasey titles on the racks everywhere; in bookshops, railway stalls, newsagents – all with their distinctive covers. He was well regarded in his profession. The Crime Writers’ Association give awards in his honour.

I’ve been meaning to write about Creasey’s books for some time, for he is one of the masters of the craft.

His character the Hon. Richard Rollison, better known as The Toff, made his first appearance in Thriller magazine in 1933, his first book outing Introducing the Toff appearing five years later. There were about 60 Toff books published, Creasey would often write several in a year – four of the titles appeared after the author’s death.

The premise of the Toff is that well-brought up gentleman Rollison goes into the East End of London to fight crime, acquiring a reputation and the nickname. He has a calling card showing a gent complete with top hat and monocle, wearing a bow-tie and sporting a cigarette holder. He has an eye for the ladies and a rather nice flat in Gresham Street in Mayfair.

But really Rollison belongs to what the thriller writer Geoffrey Household called “Class X” – he fits in as well with the slum-dwellers of the East End as he does with posh society.

The trappings of the upper-class are present in these stories, but there is none of the dreadful snobbery you get with writers like Sapper and Wheatley. Rollison is a righter of wrongs, with friends he values right across Britain’s ridiculous class divide.

Like all good crime-fighters, the Toff has a winning supporting cast; there is his “man” Jolly, who puts on a pretence of being thoroughly miserable; Superintendent Bill Brice of Scotland Yard, who doesn’t really approve of Rollison, but welcomes his help; Bill Ebbut, who trains fighters in the East End and provides muscle to the Toff when needed. All of them delightfully drawn by the author.

Now, although I’ve been re-reading the Baron stories by Creasey, I hadn’t read the Toff for many years. Then, browsing in an antiques shop in York, while researching backgrounds for my next William Quest novel, I came across a battered copy of The Toff at Butlin’s. My copy had clearly originated at the Butlin’s Camp at Filey, for it is autographed by many of the redcoats working there during the 1954 season – including at least two who went on to become famous in the UK – the comedian Charlie Drake and the entertainer Eddie Keene, although the story is actually set at a Welsh holiday camp.

Now, for readers outside the UK, Butlin’s was and is a very famous holiday camp enterprise, set up by Billy Butlin in the late 1920s. Holidaymakers, usually on limited incomes, could come to Butlin’s for a fixed fee holiday, which included lots of entertainment provided by the famous redcoats (many British variety stars began their careers as redcoats). It was cheap, but it was very cheerful, for Billy Butlin was the complete showman in every sense of the word.

At some point, and I don’t know quite when it started, Billy Butlin approached several writers asking them to set books in one of his holiday camps. Dennis Wheatley, an arch-snob, famously turned him down. But several rather forgotten writers accepted, and two writers at least who are still highly regarded – John Creasey and Frank Richards, creator of Billy Bunter.

Now, the thought of the Hon. Richard Rollison staying at Butlin’s to investigate the disappearance of a trio of redcoats might seem strange, but it works wonderfully. Mostly, because Rollison is never portrayed as a snob and can mix with anyone.

And, by the 1950s, the Toff is rather hard up, putting out his sleuthing skills for money. He has to pay the bills so, when Billy Butlin (who makes a cameo appearance in the novel) invites him to his holiday camp at Pwllheli to investigate why redcoats keep vanishing, Rollison is quite eager to go – spurred on, it has to be said, by the photograph of a pretty girl on the cover of the Butlin’s brochure. His man, Jolly, thinks it all rather undignified and is outraged at the suggestion, but then, well, they do need the money. Some of the most amusing scenes in the novel explain Jolly’s conversion to the Butlin cause.

But what is the mystery which brings the Toff to Butlin’s? Well, I’m not going into any detail, for this is a wonderfully entertaining novel that you really should read for yourself. Sufficient to say that, along the way, there are robberies, the disposal of stolen goods, murders, and the Toff himself under threat from deadly opponents. And just who can the Toff trust? Not everyone can be trusted.

Never has a holiday camp been so menacing in a work of fiction – or so much fun. And the reaction of the campers when they discover that a celebrity like the Toff is in their midst is wittily drawn.

I would think that Sir Billy Butlin must have thought the book a hoot. It’s certainly as readable and fresh as the day it was written.

I shall certainly re-read the Toff novels as I find them. I know his agent is working very hard to make these titles more widely available. But how lovely it would be to see the paperbacks, with the original cover art, back in the bookshops.

And, I must say, I rather like this idea of setting a crime novel at Butlin’s. Sir Billy Butlin is long gone, but if anyone from Butlin’s would like to offer me a chalet for a week or two, I’ll see what I can do…

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A Dark Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

Published in 1986, A Dark-Adapted Eye was the first novel legendary crime writer Ruth Rendell wrote under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. The name comes from her middle name and her great-grandmother’s maiden name. In interviews, Rendell said that she wanted to differentiate these novels from her other work. They would explore the psychological motives behind crime in greater depth, particularly the secrets among families.A Dark-Adapted Eye by [Vine, Barbara]

In the introduction to a new edition, Val McDermid calls this the novel that changed the thriller landscape. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a whydunit, its structure unconventional, even among novels of psychological suspense. A compelling, enigmatic mystery that explores an old crime and a deadly accurate study of British mores in the mid-twentieth century.

The opening chapter is a master-class in fine writing. We know from the first paragraph that the narrator’s aunt is being hanged that morning. The reader is immersed in the tiny details of a home in the early 1950s as the clock ticks inexorably towards eight – the time at which British judicial hangings took place.

The layers of a rich and complex plot begin peeling back and it takes much of the novel to know who was murdered. (Or rather, that was clearly Ruth Rendell’s intention but I note new editions give away too much on the jacket copy). Readers were meant to surmise, even be fairly sure though not entirely so.

Faith Severn is contacted by a biographer who is writing a book about her aunt Vera Hillyard. This sets her on a quest of remembering, over a third of a century later, the childhood visits she made to the cottage in rural Essex. Home of her two devoted aunts, over-thin, nervy, scolding Vera and Eden, fifteen years her junior. Eden, only six years older than Faith, lovely to look at and domestically accomplished, became the young Faith’s role model.

The narrative deftly weaves between past and present as Faith reexamines her memories through adult eyes in an attempt to work out what was really going on. Her insights take us beneath the surface of a conventional English family through the War and into the early 1950s. A life of rationing and thriftiness, when respectability and conformity meant everything. No one ‘washed their dirty linen in public’, keeping up appearances mattered and few suspected what went on behind the starched net curtains. Ruth Rendell was superb at evoking that time, still within living memory, but a vanished way of life.

It seems to be hard for some people today to relate to how vastly attitudes have changed in Britain since the mid-twentieth century. Based on reviews I’ve seen, some readers view the plots of vintage detective fiction with today’s liberal attitudes and can’t understand how the strait-jacket of convention affected people’s lives.

The social history is part of my love for vintage crime novels and one reason I write historical detective fiction. I’m fascinated by a long-gone Britain with its plethora of motives for murder which no longer apply. Novels – perhaps especially crime stories – are as important as non-fiction at recording social history.

The narrative of A Dark-Adapted Eye is brilliantly constructed, often cryptic, gradually filling in the gaps in the reader’s knowledge. The story makes the reader question the nature of memory and interpretation. Memory itself is an unreliable narrator and can our understanding of events only ever be partial?

This is a novel on a slow fuse – which won’t appeal to everyone. Throughout a slow build-up, there’s a feeling of claustrophobic tension as Faith’s recall nears the crime. The characterisation is masterly and the ending ambivalent. Two alternatives are set out, almost as they would be in a courtroom and the reader is left to decide. Frustrating to readers who want a clear feeling of closure but much more true to life. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a novel for grown-ups and one that lingers in the mind.

I’ll leave the last word to another legendary crime novelist and old friend of Ruth Rendell. Couldn’t agree more.

This is a rich, complex and beautifully crafted novel, which combines excitement with psychological subtlety. I salute a deeply satisfying achievement – P.D. James

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Our Victorian Murder Mystery On Sale

A Seaside Mourning is on sale this week on Kindle for just 99 pence/cents. We thought we’d reblog this piece on the background to the novel. Please click on the link on the end of this blog to start reading or to order. It’s also available in paperback.updated-seaborough-picture-no-people

A Seaside Mourning is set in the fictional town of Seaborough, a small resort in Devon. The plan was to think hard about coming up with a suitable name. However around the same time we were researching John’s family history. When we found that one of his ancestors had the unusual first name of Seaborough, it seemed exactly right.

In the novel Seaborough is in East Devon, an area often overlooked by holiday-makers who travel to the better-known parts of the English Riviera and the South Hams. It is a timeless landscape of rounded hills, old hedgerows, meadows and heaths; villages with thatched cottages and a few quiet seaside resorts. Their railway stations and branch lines are long gone.

The unspoilt coastline has red sandstone, zig-zag cliffs gradually fading to chalk near the county border. Together with the neighbouring county of Dorset, they make up the Jurassic Coast, Britain’s first Unesco natural world heritage site. We know the area well from walking the old footpaths and exploring the villages of my forebears. One of my ancestors was a Victorian police constable, probably much like the ones in the story.

Walk through the streets of any British seaside town, trace back the architecture and you’ll most likely find the beginning was a fishing village. The rise of the seaside resort – offering buildings and entertainment designed to attract tourists – gradually began in the eighteenth century. At that time the concept of an annual holiday for the masses didn’t exist. The wealthy tended to travel abroad on the classical Grand Tour or over-winter on the Continent. Working people had neither the money nor paid leisure to explore new places.

From the mid-1700s physicians began questioning whether sea-water might have healing properties similar to those of spa water. An enterprising Sussex physician Dr. Richard Russell set up a house for patients in the fishing village of Brighthelmstone in 1753. ‘Taking the waters’ at inland spa resorts was fashionable and money was to be made from rich invalids – and hypochondriacs – so there may have been some self-interest involved!

Dr. Russell published works on the rejuvenating powers of sea-bathing and drinking salt water, claiming his treatments cured enlarged glands and all manner of ailments. As well as swimming, his patients were immersed in baths of salt water and encouraged to ‘promenade’ in the sea air. This quickly became prevalent medical opinion.

Just as today, landowners and speculative builders were quick to spot a business opportunity. Scarborough on the coast of Yorkshire had the best of both worlds. Mineral water had been discovered there in the early seventeenth century and they had a flourishing spa by the beach. Wheel out the bathing-machines and the town was well-placed to develop into England’s earliest seaside resort.

Villages along the south coast in particular offered a mild climate and an easier journey from the capital. They began to throw up lodgings suitable for well-to-do visitors. Theatres and assembly rooms were built, promenades and sea-front gardens laid out. New resorts advertised their picturesque scenery, carriage tours and health-giving benefits.

Jane Austen satirised this new enthusiasm in her last unfinished novel, Sanditon. Interestingly Reginald Hill did a witty take on Sanditon – one of his lovely literary jokes – in his Dalziel and Pascoe novel A Cure For All Diseases. Sidmouth in East Devon is a possible contender for Austen’s Sanditon, though several resorts also fit the clues. It’s most likely that Jane Austen was thinking of more than one place. The Austens enjoyed holidaying along the Channel coast. Their stays at Lyme Regis in 1803 and 04 famously inspired part of the setting of Persuasion.

Fashion played a part in putting a watering-hole on the map. When George III’s physicians recommended he try the sea cure in 1788, he chose the village of Weymouth on the Dorset coast. Liking its sheltered sandy bay, he returned many times, making Weymouth one of England’s oldest seaside resorts.

His son, later the Prince Regent, vastly preferred Brighthelmstone, nearer London. Under his patronage it expanded rapidly to cater for his younger and wilder set. It has never lost its stylish and racy reputation. The spelling changed to suit its pronunciation and a new saying became widespread. The wealthy patient often tried the cure of Doctor Brighton.

Some towns started out as the vision of a single developer. In the 1780s a wealthy merchant called Sir Richard Hotham bought up land around the Sussex fishing village of Bognor. He intended to design a purpose-built resort modestly named Hothampton and entice the King away from Weymouth, making himself a second fortune. George III never obliged and the town reverted to Bognor soon after Sir Richard’s death. He did leave the townspeople several fine terraces and a splendid park.

New resorts received a boost to their fortunes when the Napoleonic wars closed the Continent to travellers. Prosperous invalids and people living in seclusion often settled by the sea in smart new villas for the gentry. Lady Nelson came to live at Exmouth in East Devon, after Nelson’s association with Lady Emma Hamilton became public knowledge.

Hunstanton features briefly in our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice, set just after his case in Seaborough. This West Norfolk resort came about as the scheme of one man in 1846. Henry Le Strange, an architect and local landowner built a hotel on an empty headland as the flagship of his new town. A typically enthusiastic Victorian ‘entrepreneur’, he gathered investors to fund a railway line from King’s Lynn to his planned site, which was named after the nearby village of Old Hunstanton. It took another 16 years before the railway arrived and further building work began.

Many resorts can date their growth to the arrival of the railway. It became the custom for middle-class Victorian families to send their children to the seaside with nannies and nursery-maids. The first pleasure pier had been constructed at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, as early as 1814. Almost a hundred more followed, mostly in England and Wales. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 gave workers four days off – five in Scotland. On Whit Monday and in August, railway companies laid on ‘Bank Holiday Specials’ for the day-trippers pouring into popular resorts. At last accessible for the pleasure of ordinary working people, the seaside resort as we know it today had arrived.

In A Seaside Mourning, Seaborough is expanding. It is autumn 1873 and the town has its railway branch line. New houses are going up and some businessmen are keen for a pier and other amenities to be developed.

Many of the characters are ‘on the make’, jostling for more money and social position. Some are fighting for security in a precarious society shadowed by the workhouse. Even Inspector Josiah Abbs is not safe. This was an age when policemen were not considered gentlemen. A detective was treated by the well-off as a distasteful necessity, an embarrassment who should call at the tradesmen’s entrance.

Abbs cannot summon suspects to interview if they are his social ‘betters’ and he must catch a murderer without making enemies. Dismissal without a reference is always a threat. He and his young side-kick Sergeant Ned Reeve, though very different characters, are both outsiders in Devon. They don’t quite know what to make of one another yet but they’re determined to solve the case somehow…

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