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Writing a 1930s Detective Novel

The Seafront Corpse, was the first in our series set in the early 1930s. I liked the idea of spending time in the pre-war England of the Golden Age detective fiction I enjoy so much. Trying my hand at contemporary crime has never appealed – and I’m full of admiration for writers who deliver a compelling mystery while knowing their way around modern police procedure and forensics.

Rather than basing my detectives in London and sending them around the country, I fancied writing about a provincial town. Somewhere large enough to have plots for murders yet with a medium-sized community where people know the more prominent members, at least by reputation. I settled on a Sussex seaside resort – I lived in one for many years – within reach of a day-trip to London.A view of Clevedon Pier in Somerset, England

The Channel resorts of south-east England were at the start of their heyday between the wars. The coastal towns of Sussex and Kent were experiencing a building boom both in housing and distinctive public buildings. Lidos, shopping arcades, ice cream parlours and pavilions were appearing. Victorian piers, theatres, town and concert halls were being given an art deco or moderne facelift. Aerodromes and motor-car showrooms were being built and of course, every large town in England was getting at least one cinema.

Some of these stylish buildings can still be enjoyed today. In Sussex, Worthing has one of the finest moderne piers in England. Opened in 1935, it has featured in an episode of Poirot. Further along the coast, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-On-Sea was built the same year. One of the most important moderne buildings in England, it is Grade 1 listed and was used in Foyle’s War. Sadly, many fine examples were bulldozed in recent decades before town councils realised what important, historic townscapes they had in their care.

My initial thought was to use Brighton as a setting. A fascinating place but I changed my mind as Brighton’s real-life crime in the thirties was on the hard-boiled side, as depicted in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. So I created Tennysham-On-Sea, influenced by but not based upon any real town. I wanted to describe a genteel resort with repertory players and beach photographers, the sort of place where Miss Marple might stay for a few days. It’s been fun mapping out my fictional town and dreaming up more features for the next book.

Tennysham isn’t meant to be too cosy. I wanted to reflect the seedy back streets, something that hasn’t changed as much as you might think. (I’ve lived in a few resorts along the Channel and rented flats that would fit well in a Patrick Hamilton novel). So Tennysham has its shabby boarding-houses, the bus-depot and laundry, gas-works and coal-yard as well as its chalk cliffs and smart sea-front.

My detective, Inspector Eddie Chance, is a local who’s been transferred away from the town for some years. Newly promoted as head of the small C.I.D. department, he’s glad to be back home and working with his old pal and former mentor, Sergeant Wilf Bishop.

It’s been a pleasure to attempt to create the atmosphere of the thirties, a world where the detectives wear trilbys and pipe smoke curls over the typewriter. Where they stop off at phone boxes and press button B, the Chief Constable is a retired colonel and no one’s heard of DNA.

To get the feel of the language, you can’t do better than immerse yourself in the crime fiction of the time before you start writing. Their slang for instance – which varied according to class – as well as all kinds of popular expressions and writing style. Novels of the period are full of fascinating detail such as typical meals and clothing with names of fabrics and colours we no longer say. (I won’t be using ‘nigger’ brown, though it must be remembered it was polite usage at the time).

It’s important to me that the thirties atmosphere feels as authentic as possible but there’s a balance to be struck. Novels where characters ‘ejaculate’ expressions such as ‘what ho’ or ‘top hole, old thing,’ read like a spoof. Bertie Wooster could get away with it – or even Tommy Beresford – but today they could make the reader laugh where you don’t intend it.

I’ve started the series in 1931, as I’m interested in how people felt, thirteen years after the Great War. In the 1920s the prevailing mood was to try to forget the horrors and look to the future but of course that isn’t always easy. The scars remained, mental and physical. I’ve tried to reflect this in my characters.

These are some of my favourite reads for research, getting in the mood and enormous pleasure. In no particular order:

Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, E.F Benson’s Lucia novels, Patrick Hamilton and Richmal Crompton’s William novels.

Non-fiction: Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, J.B Priestley’s English Journey and Martin Pugh’s We Danced All Night (a superb social history of Britain between the wars).The Holly House Mystery (An Inspector Chance Novella Book 2) by [Bainbridge, John]

The sequel The Holly House Mystery takes Eddie Chance to a village on the South Downs in the depths of winter. A take on the classic country house mystery.






Both books are on sale on Kindle until Monday night for 99 pence/cents each. They’re also available in paperback. Just click on our author page below to start reading for free or to order.










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‘Vintage Murder’ by Ngaio Marsh

Published in 1937, this is Ngaio Marsh’s fourth novel and the first one set in her native New Zealand. This background adds a fascinating slant on a most British of plots – murder in the theatre – transposed to what would then have been termed life in the Dominions.

Vintage Murder (The Ngaio Marsh Collection) by [Marsh, Ngaio]

The novel begins with an impressively well-written first chapter. The suspects are introduced via one of my favourite tropes, a long-distance railway journey. Give me a steam-train travelling through the night and I’m hooked. All those possibilities for skullduggery with corridors and sleepers. The train here is particularly interesting with viewing platforms and a mountainous, switchback line.

Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is on holiday and trying to keep his profession under his hat. Not easy when your cases get written up in The Tatler. He’s been offered a seat in a carriage occupied by a company of actors. The Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company are touring New Zealand and on their way to the city of Middleton in the North Island. Ngaio Marsh explains in a foreword that she was no fan of fictional towns. But New Zealand had so few sizable places, if she used Auckland or Wellington, her local characters might have been mistaken for portraits or caricatures of actual persons.

Ngaio Marsh isn’t often remembered as a great descriptive writer. It’s probably fair to generalise that Golden Age writers tended to concentrate on plot and dialogue. Setting was often scanty. Well, Marsh also concentrated on plot but one of the many reasons I love her work is because she evoked a superb sense of place. She was equally at home describing London streets, the English countryside or her homeland. This is Alleyn on the train:

A violent jerk woke him. The train had slowed down. He wiped the misty window-pane, shaded his eyes, and tried to look out into this new country. The moon had risen. He saw aching hills, stumps of burnt trees, some misty white flowering scrub, and a lonely road. It was very remote and strange. Away in front, the engine whistled. Trees, hills and road slid sideways and were gone. Three lamps travelled across the window-pane. They were off again.

Throughout the opening chapter, I liked the way that the rattling, rolling rhythm of the train journey was interspersed between dialogue, making the reader feel truly in the scene. There’s a very visual feel to the writing, probably a consequence of being a renowned theatre producer.

The murder takes place on stage after a performance. A party is held to celebrate the leading lady’s birthday and a few guests outside the company are invited. These include Alleyn and a distinguished, Maori doctor. The build-up of tension is deftly handled and the murder method is worthy of Midsomer Murders. The unusual means of dispatch, popular in pre-war mysteries, are great fun. Ngaio Marsh often went in for a flamboyant slant on the murder method, possibly influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers? And if some of these wonderful writers’ ingenious ideas wouldn’t bear too close an examination, who cares? The play’s the thing..

I love a theatrical setting, it offers so much scope for being seedy and sinister. Ngaio Marsh writes about this world with an ease that can’t be faked. She acted herself and is credited with almost single-handedly reviving the popularity of New Zealand’s theatre. Not surprising that her characters are very believable theatrical types.

Alleyn is shown to be interested in and respectful of Maori culture, almost certainly echoing Marsh’s views. (Her name – actually her middle name – translates as ‘light reflected on water’ and a ngaio is also a small tree, native to New Zealand). Dr Te Pokiha is a most sympathetic character. This is surely the author speaking through her leading man:

Mr. Liversidge added that Courtney Broadhead was a white man, a phrase that Alleyn had never cared for and of which he was heartily tired.

Rory Alleyn cuts quite a lonely figure in Vintage Murder, writing to his side-kick Inspector Fox and coming close to falling for the leading lady. Until he meets his wife Agatha Troy, he has a weakness for actresses, shown in Enter A Murderer (1935). We’re told that Alleyn’s on extended leave for three months, convalescing from a serious operation, though we don’t learn the details. He’s going to be fine as he meets Troy on his voyage home in Artists In Crime (1938).

Vintage Murder is a very enjoyable read, a classic, closed setting mystery with a freshness from its vivid New Zealand background.

I’m usually dubious about series sequels/continuations by new authors – appalled by what’s often done to Agatha Christie’s legacy. But I will try Stella Duffy’s new novel Money In The Morgue, published in March. This continues the opening chapters of an Alleyn mystery which Ngaio Marsh began and put aside in 1945. Set in New Zealand during the war – Alleyn was already there in Colour Scheme (1943) and Died In The Wool (1944) – the surviving fragment is a delight.


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Leslie Charteris: Call For The Saint

Call For the Saint offers us two Simon Templar novellas (or novelettes as Charteris preferred to call them). The collected volume was published in 1948 and features two of the best post-war Saint stories. This was the last time Charteris used the novelette format, though it was revived by other Saint writers in the 1960s, around the time the Roger Moore television series aired.

In the first tale “The King of the Beggars” Simon Templar is in Chicago and takes to the streets and alleys as a blind beggar to investigate the mysterious individual who declares himself just that – the King of the Beggars. Not that this king is generous to people forced on to the streets. In fact, this king is running a protection racket, forcing street beggars to hand over most of what they have collected to him.

Templar is in alliance here with a feisty theatre actress, Monica Varing, who goes undercover herself.

The joy of the piece is Templar’s Runyonesque and extremely dim hoodlum sidekick Hoppy Uniatz, one of the happiest character creations in thrillerdom. Hoppy gives an added delight to the stories in which he appears. Here his ability to mouth out BB shot plays an important part in the yarn.

The second story, “The Masked Angel” is set against the world of fixed boxing bouts. Charteris captures the atmosphere of the ring rather well and we even have a climax where the Saint puts on the gloves himself – to the delight of the crowd.

The story is set in New York and re-introduces two well-known characters from the canon – Police Inspector Fernack, who shares the same love/hate relationship with Templar that Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard enjoys. How frustrating it must be for well-meaning cops that they can never bring the saint to heel?

The other character is Patricia Holm, the Saint’s sometime girlfriend and partner in crime. This is one of her last appearances (she takes her final bow in Saint Errant published the same year, and she hadn’t appeared since the earlier The Saint in Miami).

Reading this story, you get the feeling that all is not well between the Saint and the delightful Patricia. He has his saintly eyes on another (unavailable) woman and Patricia isn’t very happy about it. In fact, there’s a real edginess between Patricia and the Saint in this one, as though both know that the writing is on the wall in a relationship coming to an end.

For me, the Saint is never quite the same when Patricia leaves, and I don’t recall there being any reason given for the breakdown of their relationship. If any Saintly readers know why Charteris decided to give her the elbow, please comment.

Call For the Saint is a wonderful read if you want a few hours of complete escapism, both stories are beautifully-written and full of atmosphere.

At the top of his form, nobody did this kind of story better than Leslie Charteris.


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Help An Indie Author By Reviewing

A big thank you to everyone who’s bought or borrowed one of our books this year – writing can be a lonely business and it really helps to get feedback from readers.

As Indie Authors, we especially appreciate your support. If you’ve enjoyed our books please leave a quick review. 

A Happy New Year to everyone who reads this. 


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‘The Vanishing Box’ by Elly Griffiths

Recently published, The Vanishing Box is Elly Griffiths’s fourth historical crime novel featuring Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and his old friend Max Mephisto, the stage musician. I loved the earlier books and this one continues their high standard.The Vanishing Box: The perfect chilling read for Christmas (Stephens & Mephisto Mystery Book 4) by [Griffiths, Elly]

It’s December 1953, leaden skies over the sea-front, snow is falling and Max Mephisto is back in Brighton, topping the bill at the Hippodrome. Somewhat uncomfortably, he’s sharing his act with his daughter Ruby as an equal partner. Meanwhile, Edgar is investigating the unusual murder of Lily, a quiet young florist. Flowers are made a deliciously sinister motif throughout this mystery.

Lily lodged in a typical dreary boarding-house of the time. The period detail is beautifully done with female clerks giving homely touches to their cold rooms, flowered skirts on dressing-tables, cooking on gas rings, a sharp-tongued land-lady and no gentlemen callers in the house.

Among the lodgers passing through are two girls in the show with Max. They’re performing in a tableaux vivants act where scenes of famous women in history are depicted by almost nude artistes, posed like living statues. Their modesty is just about preserved by carefully arranged props and famously, huge fans made from feathers and the stage darkens as they rearrange their poses.

These acts scraped past the Lord Chamberlain’s office – the theatre censor – provided the girls didn’t move. Not so much as a twitch was allowed. The best-known example was the show at The Windmill in London’s Soho. Their tableaux were legendary for elegance, sauciness and glamour – and for continuing throughout the Blitz. Their post-war slogan was We never closed.

As Edgar’s case leads to Max’s theatrical world, a well-written plot – packed with suspects and red herrings – races to an exciting denouement. This was a fast read, the author’s prose has a lovely flow and it was hard to put down.

There’s so much I enjoy about Elly Griffiths’s Stephens & Mephisto series. In addition to her strong plotting, she’s extremely good on character and place. Her characters always feel true to life. Edgar and Max are very likeable leads, I especially like Max’s world-weary restlessness. The two sergeants Bob and Emma, with their gentle rivalry, are believable and it was interesting to see Bob get a more prominent role in The Vanishing Box.

Brighton makes a wonderful setting, almost a character in its own right and the author leads us through its real seedy streets and wealthy squares. To anyone who loves Brighton, it’s poignant to glimpse the lovely old West Pier still standing, the former Hanningtons department store and the Hippodrome as it once was. (There’s an interesting author’s note about the real travails of the theatre in the novel and thankfully, hope for its future). It’s hard to think of a more atmospheric town in England for crime fiction – and many authors would agree.

Elly Griffiths evokes post-war British society and its sense of changing times very well. There are all sorts of divides in the novel; between those affected by serving in the war and those too young like Sergeant Bob Willis, young women who work until they expect to marry and those like Emma, and Edgar’s fiancée Ruby, who want a satisfying career in a male-dominated world. There’s a sense of loss vying with a new optimism. The country’s both down at heel and on the up. While there are bombsites and war debt, there’s a new, young Queen on the throne, women are wearing Dior’s New Look and television is starting to make an impact.

I really like the theme of theatre, magic and illusion in this series. The contrast between the lure of show-biz and the shabby life backstage is superbly done. Tableaux acts are starting to feel outdated – though obviously still popular with the dirty raincoat brigade. Max disapproves of the new-style comedians who don’t tell gags with punchlines and of a new magician, a cetain Tommy Cooper, who deliberately messes up his tricks. This fading world of variety gives an outstandingly good sense of place to the series.

An historical detective novel to get lost in, The Vanishing Box would make a perfect seasonal read and a lovely last-minute Christmas present.



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‘Balmoral Kill’ – My Scottish Novel

As a hillwalker who also writes novels, I always like to root my plots and characters in a real landscape whenever that is possible. I might alter it, fictionalise it, or just change the odd feature – but I like to start with a reality. And at some point in my fiction I like to use an actual place I know, walk around it and imagine my characters playing out their adventures upon it.


I always knew, right from the beginning, that my Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest would come to a dramatic conclusion on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. And I knew that the final duel between my hero and villain in Balmoral Kill would have to be in some remote spot in the Cairngorms, though within easy reach of the royal residence of Balmoral Castle.

But I wasn’t sure where.

In all my Scottish stravaiging I had never been to Loch Muick (pronounced without the u), though I had read about it in my numerous Scottish books and looked at it on the map. It seemed an ideal location for the conclusion of a thriller.Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

So the summer when I was writing the book, when we were staying in Ballater, we walked up to take a look, circling the loch and examining the wild mountains and tumbling rivers round about. Plotting a gunfight (even a fictional one) takes some care. I wanted it to be as probable and realistic as possible. This is, after all, a book about experienced assassins. I wanted the line of sight of every rifle to be exact.

We also had to check out the hills around. Both my hero and villain are great walkers and “walk-in” to places where they expect to see some action

And a beautiful wild place Loch Muick is. It was a favourite picnicking place of Queen Victoria, who used to linger for days on end at the lonely house of Glas-Allt-Shiel, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Today’s royal family picnic there even now. The house is as I describe it in the book, as is the surrounding scenery. Believe me, I checked out those sightlines. Every shot described in the book could be taken in reality. Even now when I think of that loch and the Corrie Chash above it, I think of my characters being there. Sometimes they are all very real to me.Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

We also revisited Balmoral Castle (actually they only let you into the ballroom!), strolled through its grounds and examined the countryside round about. I was able to work out the exact routes taken by all of the characters who found themselves on the shores of Loch Muick on a late summer day in 1937.

Other areas of Scotland feature in the book too. I partly fictionalised the places I used in the Scottish Borders, though those scenes are based on the many walks I’ve done around Peebles, the Broughton Heights and Manorwater. In one flashback scene in the Highlands I have a character journey from Taynuilt and out on to the mighty twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and then into the glens beyond, to kill a man in Glen Noe. Some years ago I did a lot of walking in that area and had considerable pleasure in reliving my journeys as I penned those scenes.Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

The book begins in London and journeys into the East End. I’ve walked the streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse by day and night over the years. Balmoral Kill is set in 1937, so there has been a great deal of change in nearly eighty years. The East End was very badly bombed in the War and thoughtless planners have destroyed a lot more. But enough remains to give you the picture. Once more, I could take you in the steps of my characters through every inch of the places mentioned.

Very often going to these locations inspires changes to the writing. Balmoral Kill was half-written by the time we explored Loch Muick. The real-life topography of the place inspired me to make several changes to the novel’s conclusion.

And now I’m back to writing my Robin Hood series set in the 1190s. The landscape where it is set has changed very considerably in the centuries since. So more imagination is needed, though I still try to root my scenes in reality.

As a walker as well as a writer I find going on research trips is the best way to conjure up locations with the written wo

Click on the link below to take a look at Balmoral Kill..


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‘A Christmas Railway Mystery’ by Edward Marston

Recently published, this is the fifteenth in the historical crime series featuring Inspector Robert Colbeck, known to the press as ‘The Railway Detective’. Edward Marston’s murder mysteries are always enjoyable and it’s nice to have one with a seasonal setting. It’s a title I’d always find hard to resist.A Christmas Railway Mystery (The Railway Detective Series) by [Marston, Edward]

It is December 1860, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is recently dead and the mystery takes place in Swindon, Wiltshire in the workshops of his empire, the Great Western Railway. The body of a workman is found in the erection shed, where the huge locomotives are assembled. The head of the corpse is missing. No spoiler – this is revealed in the jacket copy. Inspector Colbeck and his steadfast sergeant Victor Leeming are on the case, racing against time – and not only due to the old trope of will they make it home for Christmas?

Colbeck and Sergeant Leeming are very likeable and Edward Marston includes some gentle humour with regular supporting characters. His people are realistic and clearly delineated. Plenty of suspects, all with feasible motives, make it hard to work out the murderer – something we crime fans want most of all.

Edward Marston’s knowledge and research make his mysteries very appealing. The theme of steam railways gives a terrific sense of place for fans of Victorian crime. Hard to think of a more atmospheric setting than a crowded, smoky terminus or a swaying compartment with leather straps and hat-boxes. The author keeps this series fresh with cleverly varied aspects of railway murder and readers can enjoy Colbeck’s mid-Victorian Britain knowing that everything they read is authentic.

The setting of A Christmas Railway Mystery is fascinating. Swindon was a rural market town – near the countryside immortalised by the great Victorian essayist Richard Jefferies – until overtaken by the GWR in the 1840s. It was chosen for its position – on the Wilts and Berks canal for transport and between London and the West Country. The market town became known as Swindon Old Town, once the GWR built their Locomotive Works and Railway Village for the workmen. The GWR’s land gradually became known as New Town and the mile or so of countryside between the two areas was filled, as sadly is always the way. Had Brunel never opted for Swindon, the town would perhaps be much smaller today.

Much of the mystery takes place at Swindon New Town, among the village terraces and shadowy corners of the coal sidings, locomotive sheds, machine shops and brass foundry. The Railway Village was built along similar lines to model factory villages like Saltaire and New Lanark, intended to cater for all the needs of employees’ lives. Homes came in different sizes according to position in the company, as varied as clerk, manager or blacksmith. The GWR built a church and chapel, pubs and an enlightened Mechanics’ Institute with an indoor market, entertainment, lectures, classes and the country’s first free lending-library. The workmen even had their own orchestra. (By the end of the 19th century, Railway Village also had its own health clinic and dentist).

The author evokes a claustrophobic community where residents must conform and the family of the murdered man will soon be evicted from their company home. The skilled workforce have come to Wiltshire from industrial areas and been poached from other railway companies. Strangers who bring conflict between factions and the inhabitants of the Old Town. A fraught setting for murder.

A Christmas Railway Mystery is one of the strongest outings for The Railway Detective. Darker in tone than some previous stories, it has a tense sub-plot for irascible Superintendent Tallis, one of our favourite characters. Already looking forward to the next one, I’m glad Edward Marston shows no sign of running out of steam!


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Our Christmas Mystery Novella

If you enjoy curling up by the fireside with a seasonal mystery, you might like to try our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice. Set in 1873 during a Victorian country Christmas in Norfolk, our introspective sleuth has a dark puzzle to be solved.  Christmas-Malice-Kindle-Cover Reduced

Several readers have asked if the setting is based on a real Norfolk village. Aylmer is completely fictional though the descriptions of the railway line across the empty Fens, an ancient flint church and carrstone cottages fit the real area of beautiful West Norfolk. The towns of King’s Lynn and Hunstanton featured are described as befits their fascinating history.

In the way of any large British county, there are several Norfolks. The saltmarshes, the Broads and the Brecks, to name just three areas are very different from one another. Our story is set on the edge of another, the Norfolk Fens or Fenland. Norfolk is famed for its spectacular wide skies where a fairly flat landscape allows the traveller to see long vistas for miles in every direction. We use fairly advisedly because Norfolk isn’t as pancake flat as is often said. Much of the landscape has gentle undulations and many a fetching slope topped with an old copse or church tower.

On the western edge of the county the Fens (a local word meaning marshland) reach into Norfolk, though their greater part lies in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and the lost county of Huntingdonshire. Flat, few trees, remote and haunting. An empty landscape of long, straight rivers and dykes. Historically a land of windmills, pumping houses, wildfowling and eels. A place of refuge for monks and rebels, the most famous being Hereward the Wake. Cromwell too was a Fenlander. Artificially drained by Dutchmen in the 17th century, the Fens are the lowest-lying land in England and have some of the most fertile soil.

Border places are intriguing, having a face in two directions. A Christmas Maliceis set in a village with the Fens starting at its back and a more pastoral landscape on the other side towards the North Sea, then known as the German Ocean. Our Inspector Josiah Abbs is a Norfolk man, living in Devon when the story begins. He comes to spend Christmas with his widowed sister Hetty. Although they grew up on an estate where their father was head gardener, this lonely part of the county is unknown to him. Abbs has only a few days to resolve the mystery, preferably without ruining his sister’s Christmas.

It was an interesting challenge to write a novella-length story (33,000 words) where our detective is alone, without the help of his sergeant or the resources of his county force. Fortunately he does find an ally in the village policeman.

Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve formed an unlikely partnership in our novel A Seaside Mourning, set in Devon in 1873.

It’s available now on Kindle and in paperback if you are looking for a stocking-filler. Just click on the link below to order: 


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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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