Tag Archives: Mystery Novels

Writing A Penny Dreadful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Deadly-William-Victorian-Mystery-Thriller-ebook/dp/B01LYGNCNQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1474537824&sr=1-1&keywords=deadly+quest

This piece first appeared on Marni Graff’s excellent crime fiction review blog https://auntiemwrites.com/  

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Agatha Christie’s Halloween Party

Published in 1969 this seasonal novel features Hercule Poirot and his friend Mrs Ariadne Oliver. It was dedicated to P.G Wodehouse.Hallowe'en Party (Poirot) (Hercule Poirot Series Book 36) by [Christie, Agatha]

While staying with a new friend, Mrs Oliver is taken to a house called ‘Apple Trees’ where preparations for a Hallowe’en party are taking place. The house is full of assorted helpers, mostly mothers, spinsters, teenagers and children.
These were the days when Hallowe’en was still celebrated in the old way in Britain. A night of apple bobbing, folklore and ghost stories; much more atmospheric than today’s supermarket aisle of tacky costumes and plastic pumpkins. By tradition it was the night when girls might catch a fleeting glimpse of their future husband. No one toured the neighbours demanding treats. The party is a great success until at the end of the evening, the body of a thirteen year old girl is found murdered in the library.

Mrs Oliver asks Poirot to investigate. He enlists the help of ex- Superintendent Spence who appeared in Mrs McGinty’s Dead and has retired to the village to live with his sister. Poirot insists on staying at a ‘fifth class guest house’ and wincing round the village in his too-tight patent leather shoes as he talks to a variety of well-drawn characters. Agatha Christie skilfully conjures a sly, sinister atmosphere in the village of Woodleigh Common. A feeling that some know more than they’re prepared to tell Poirot. A sense that someone mad is hiding behind an ordinary face and further danger is impending.

Hallowe’en Party is one of the last novels, written when the author was in her late seventies. The thing that strikes me most on rereading is how frequently characters comment on the times, voicing what were surely her own thoughts. Although the village setting is vintage Christie, the novel reads as strangely modern compared to earlier works.

Characters discuss the changing nature of crime, its causes and solutions now capital punishment has been abolished. Poirot’s view puts justice before compassion because that would save the lives of future victims. Other characters argue that the ‘mentally disturbed’ are being sent home because ‘mental homes’ are too full. Are murderers ‘mentally defective’ or just ‘nasty bits of goods’?

One character remarks ‘there have been very many sad fatalities with children all over the countryside. They seem to be getting more and more frequent.’ The village doctor says ‘mind you, doing in a child isn’t anything to be startled about nowadays.’

Another comments: ‘It seems to me that crimes are so often associated nowadays with the young. People who don’t really know quite what they are doing, who want silly revenges, who have an instinct for destruction. Even the people who wreck telephone boxes, or who slash the tyres of cars, do all sorts of things just to hurt people, just because they hate – not anyone in particular, but the whole world. It’s a sort of symptom of this age.’

You can’t imagine those lines in a pre-war or fifties Christie novel and you can hear the author saddened by changing society.

For that reason Hallowe’en Party has a sad, elegiac air. Poirot seems old and tired. We first see him in his flat, disappointed when an old friend rings to cancel his visit. ‘Many of the evenings were dull now.’ He thinks back over the previous cases where Mrs Oliver involved him. It’s all a long time after the camaraderie of detecting with Hastings and Miss Lemon.

There are other modern touches which seem jarring in a Christie novel. Teenagers ‘necking’, youths with long hair and side-burns, mauve trousers, rose velvet coat and ‘a kind of frilled shirting.’ (Takes me back to my brother when he used to blow his wages in Carnaby Street). There’s mention of purple hemp and L.S.D. ‘which sounds like money but isn’t.’ Mrs Oliver accuses Poirot of sounding like a computer programming himself. And of course the murder of a child is a departure from her usual victims – though not her only instance.

This was still an extremely enjoyable read, character-driven with a real sense of creeping evil. Though I prefer her work up to about the fifties, late Agatha Christie is still better than umpteen others.

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Leslie Charteris and the Saint

Over the past few weeks I’ve been re-reading some of the earliest of Leslie Charteris’s stories of Simon Templar – The Saint. Some of the longer novels, such as The Saint Closes the Case (The Last Hero), and the novellas – Charteris preferred the word novelette – as in Enter the Saint, Alias the Saint, The Saint v. Scotland Yard, The Ace of Knaves and The Happy Highwayman.Enter the Saint by [Charteris, Leslie]

Now it should be noted that these early Saint stories had many manifestations. Simon Templar appears in novels, novelettes and short stories, and even a comic strip. Many were printed in magazines as long stories before they appeared in print. Some were slightly altered and updated over time, and published Saint books were wont to change their titles.

The Saint made his first appearance in a novel called Meet the Tiger, though Charteris had experimented with other heroes in a few novels before that. Charteris was unhappy with this first appearance and apparently considered Enter the Saint, as the real debut of the character he wrote about from 1928 to the 1980s; though it’s worth noting that many of the books published after 1963 were ghost-written by other authors, under Charteris’s “editorial control”.

Leslie Charteris was born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin in 1907, and died in Windsor, Berkshire in 1993. He was half Chinese and half English. He spent most of his life in Britain and America, doing a variety of interesting jobs while he struggled to make it as a writer. He’d done about a year at King’s College, Cambridge, before dropping out on the acceptance of his novel. In 1926 he changed his name by deed poll to Leslie Charteris. Legend says that it was in admiration of Colonel Francis Charteris of the Hellfire Club. More prosaically, his daughter Patricia says he found the Charteris in the phone book.

Many people are familiar with the Saint from the television series starring, respectively, Roger Moore, Ian Ogilvy and Simon Dutton. And great fun though these are, the Saint is a rather different character in the early novels. On film the character has been played by George Sanders, Louis Hayward – in my opinion the nearest portrayal to the book character, though Charteris disagreed – and Hugh Sinclair. Vincent Price and Tom Conway played Templar on the radio.

I always think it would be great if the early Saint novels could be filmed in period, in the early 1930s. Personally, I think the earlier Saint books are the best. In later volumes, Templar takes on super-villains, even the Nazis, but in the first books he’s dealing with the underworld of the time – corrupt politicians, warmongers, blackmailers and other assorted nasty crooks.

And there are a whole team of Saint supporters: gentlemen adventurers who work for Templar on an ad hoc basis. He also has a rather dim American gangster assistant, Hoppy Uniatz, a “man” called Orace, and Patricia Holm, his utterly delightful girlfriend, who isn’t afraid to participate in some of his adventures. Sadly, for Patricia Holm fans like me, Charteris dropped her from the series in about 1948. Pity!

This early Saint might be the wisecracking gentleman familiar to TV and film fans, but there is a darker side too. Unlike these popular representations, in the books the Saint doesn’t hesitate to use violence where necessary, he blackmails villains and occasionally murders the wrongdoers he is dealing with. It would be grand to see a Saint played in such a way on the screen.

What is quite stunning about these early Saint stories in the sheer quality of the writing, particularly given that Charteris was only about eighteen when he started to pen them and only in his early twenties when the best stories were written. At times, Charteris can be positively post-modern with his wisecracking hero. In The Saint v. Scotland Yard (originally published as The Holy Terror) Templar remarks to the villain in the first of the three stories that, captured though he is, he positively can’t be killed off at that point as there are still two stories left in the volume! You have to be a very confident young author to get away with that.

These first Saint stories are wonderful escapism, but there is a message there too. The Saint is there to even up the odds, protect the vulnerable, help the poor – most of his ill-gotten gains are given to charity. It’s no wonder critics dubbed Templar “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime”.

If you only know the Saint from the films or TV do seek out the books, especially the early volumes. Entering the thrilling and occasionally dark world of the Saint is vastly entertaining.

 

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Josephine Tey’s “The Singing Sands”

 

It must be forty years since I last read one of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant novels, and thought it would be interesting to look at one of them again. The Singing Sands is a brilliant if flawed detective story; not that that matters to me, for the brilliance of the writing much outweighs the flaws. It was one of the last pieces of writing Tey undertook, and was published in the year she died, 1952. There is a somewhat elegiac feel to the whole piece.

It is not a detective story in the conventional sense. Alan Grant is on leave suffering from stress and claustrophobia. The suggestion is that this is from overwork, though there are references to his time in World War Two.

Grant, on his way by the overnight sleeper train to a fishing holiday in Scotland, witnesses the discovery of the body of a man called Charles Martin. Martin has apparently fallen and banged his head in his compartment. As this appears to be an accidental death, Grant wanders away, not realising that he has picked up the dead man’s newspaper, on which are scribbled a verse of geographic clues.

But as he tries to enjoy his holiday, the words of the verse play on his mind. He begins to discover the background of the dead man, but is he who everyone believes him to be?

And what are the geographic clues in the verse? What are the singing sands?

In descriptive Scottish scenes worthy of John Buchan, Grant goes to the Hebrides in search of a solution. Some of the novel’s best writing is here. You get a real feeling of just how a Scottish island would have been in the years immediately after the war. Tey’s feeling for the Scottish landscape is superbly presented.

When Grant returns to London he finds out a great deal about the past of the dead man. All is not what it seems, for the dead man seems to have a double-past.

And was Charles Martin’s death on the train accident or murder? I won’t say anymore because I think this is a detective story you should read for yourself. And Tey, as we witness in some of her other books, is quite skilled at bending the rules of detective fiction to achieve her effects.

If the solution to the mystery didn’t quite work for me, I’m not that bothered. The journey was vastly entertaining and Tey is quite a page-turner.

The Singing Sands is not up there with her very great classics such as Brat Farrer and The Franchise Affair, but it is a terrifically atmospheric read, and her descriptions of the Scottish landscape and people are quite beautifully executed.

Well worth reading.

To order a copy click on the link below:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Singing-Sands-Josephine-Tey/dp/0099556731/ref=as_sl_pc_qf_sp_asin_til?tag=johnbainbridg-21&linkCode=w00&linkId=&creativeASIN=0099556731

 

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Murder at the Seaside

Murder at the seaside has long been a popular sub-genre of English crime fiction. Within this framework the setting and topography of Mayhem-on-sea can vary widely. The 1930s Brighton written about by Patrick Hamilton is very different from Raymond Flynn’s North Sea Eddathorpe of the 1990s or the Edwardian resort of Andrew Martin’s The Blackpool High-Flyer.

Seaside resorts provide a rich source of atmosphere for the writer. A contained world that comes complete with its own architecture and language. Grand Hotels along the esplanade, seedy Sea View boarding houses, the pier and pavilion, boating lake and prom. Locations from cliff-tops, Winter Gardens, crowded arcades or empty beaches offer endless possibilities for the finding of bodies.

Sending your characters to the seaside is a useful device whereby they join groups of strangers and meet with unexpected situations. Even Jane Austen wrote a mystery sub-plot within Emma – complete with clues – about what Jane Fairfax got up to in Weymouth.

If you fancy reading a seaside detective novel while it’s still summer, here are a few of our favourites.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase is the second of her novels to feature the crime novelist Harriet Vane. Harriet is taking a solitary walking tour along the south-west coast when she finds a body that is later washed out to sea before officialdom can arrive. Under some suspicion, she stays at the nearby resort and Lord Peter Wimsey soon follows to help her discover whodunit.

Published in 1932, Have His Carcase has been criticised for including racial stereotypes we wouldn’t countenance now but it is very much of its time and should be enjoyed as such. The novel gives a fascinating impression of the well-heeled at the seaside between the wars. An age when the best hotels had their own orchestra and exhibition dancers; tennis coaches rubbed shoulders with penniless companions, elderly residents and card-sharps. (The famous Miss Marple novel, The Body In The Library covers a similar setting equally well.)

We can’t leave out the wonderful Death Walks At Eastrepps, published a year earlier. Eastrepps is loosely based on the charming Norfolk resort of Cromer. For more detail see blogs passim.

Agatha Christie’s N Or M? features her engaging sleuths Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and sits somewhere between detective novel and spy thriller. Set in the spring of 1940 in a sleepy south coast resort. The Beresfords, now middle-aged, are staying in a boarding house and secretly searching for a German agent, a Fifth Columnist among the seemingly ordinary residents.

This is a rattling good yarn which gives an interesting insight into the times. We decided not to watch the BBC drama currently running as they’ve updated the setting to the early 50s and swopped Nazis for the Cold War – destroying the whole premise of the story.

The plot twists and turns with suspicion shifting to one character after another. It’s hard to think of anyone as good as Christie at making an everyday scene suddenly become sinister. (By one of life’s strange coincidences Agatha Christie named one of her characters Bletchley and made a reference to code-breaking. At the time of publishing in 1941 Bletchley Park, Britain’s legendary code and cypher establishment was of course top secret. Questions were asked!)

Eileen Dewhurst’s Phyllida Moon series first appeared in the 1990s and has an intriguing premise. Phyllida Moon is a gifted repertory actress who moves to the quiet south-coast town of Seaminster. There she begins a new life working for a private detective agency and sleuthing in character. This may sound as though it requires a suspension of disbelief but Eileen Dewhurst writes so well that this is effortless to do. Her plots are very original and raise interesting questions about the nature of identity. She is very good on the psychology of her characters and setting.

Curtain Fall by the same author features another series character, Inspector Neil Carter and is also set in a resort. If you want to know what seaside summers were like in the 70s, in the last days of regular end-of-the-pier shows – this is a superb read. Terrific atmosphere combined with a first class plot.

You might like to try our own seaside mystery, A Seaside Mourning:Seaside-Mourning-Ad-Cover.d

An atmospheric Victorian murder mystery set in 1873.

The small seaside resort of Seaborough, half-forgotten on the edge of Devonshire, seems an unlikely setting for murder.
When a leading resident dies, the cause of death is uncertain. Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve are sent from Exeter to determine whether the elderly spinster was poisoned.

As mourning rituals are observed and the town prepares for an elaborate funeral, no one seems to have a motive for ending a blameless life.

Under increasing pressure, Inspector Josiah Abbs must search the past for answers as he tries to catch a killer.

When the autumn leaves fall and secrets are laid bare, revealing a murderer may prove dangerous…
Now out in paperback and eBook.

Please click on the link to see more:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/ebooks/dp/B00JEHLABI/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1440065340&sr=1-2&keywords=john+bainbridge

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Raffles – The Amateur Cracksman

A.J. Raffles, gentleman about town, celebrated amateur cricketer, notably at Lords, and – most importantly of all – amateur cracksman, burglar and thief without parallel.

In these short stories by E.G. Hornung, first published in book form in 1899, Hornung gives us the idea of the gentleman-burglar. Not original in itself. There were a number of gentlemen-burglars in the popular literature of fin de siècle England. And in France the great Arsene Lupin was still to come. John Creasey was clearly inspired by these stories with his creation John Mannering, The Baron as late as the 1930s.

But Raffles is special. Not least because of the links between Hornung’s character and that of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was Willie Hornung’s brother-in-law, and it was a roundabout comment by Doyle that led to the birth of Raffles. Doyle had admired a public school rogue that Hornung had killed off in an earlier story, and remarked that such a character would feature well in popular fiction.

There are considerable likenesses between Sherlock Holmes and Raffles. Both are based in 1890s London, both are gents of the middle class, both have rooms in nice parts of town. Both have companions; Holmes has Dr Watson, Raffles has Bunny Manders. Indeed, some of the stories have a vague similarity, though whether this is conscious or not in debateable. “The Amateur Cracksman” as a volume is dedicated to Doyle.

And here I owe Hornung an apology. Since I last re-read the stories decades ago, I had pictured in my mind that some of Hornung’s major plot developments had been lifted from the Holmes stories. Particularly the way Raffles fakes his own death and re-appears in disguise to an astonished Manders. I was quite wrong. In fact Hornung came up with the idea first. And it was Doyle who lifted the plot device for his Holmes resurrection yarn “The Empty House”.

But I think there is no doubt that Bunny Manders, from whose point of view we are given most of the stories, is a deliberate aping of Watson. To Hornung’s credit they are both very different men. Bunny is taken on by Raffles initially so that the former can pay off a gambling debt. Bunny had been Raffles’ fag at a possibly inferior public school. Raffles likes him because of the innocent look Bunny always seems to have on his face – a useful counter to the suspicions of the Scotland Yard detective Inspector Mackenzie.

And here we have another departure from Doyle. In Sherlock Holmes, the various police detectives are usually not terribly clever and are outshone by Sherlock. Not so Mackenzie. He suspects Raffles is the gentleman-burglar plaguing London almost from his first appearance. He just can’t prove it, though he has some darned good tries.

Now I like Mackenzie in his own right. He is one of the great fictional detectives, worthy of a series of his own. In a way you kind of want him to succeed, even if it means bringing Raffles to heel.

Bunny’s one talent is his aura of innocence. He really has no others. He is quite incompetent as a thief, and his hero-worshipping of Raffles can be quite annoying. Some critics have tried to imply a kind of homo-erotic motivation to the feelings of adoration that Bunny has for Raffles. I think that’s going too far. Victorian men often had strong masculine friendships, without a hint of homosexuality. And Hornung counters any suggestion by having Raffles occasionally besotted with a female or two along the way – though nothing ever comes of it very much. You might imagine Raffles and Bunny nodding a greeting towards Oscar Wilde at their club, but that would be as far as it would ever go.

In later years Conan Doyle frowned a bit at the Hornung stories. The idea of making the hero a villain. The morality of the Raffles stories is worth reflecting upon. Here is A.J Raffles, famous cricketer and gentleman about town. He is often invited as a guest to the mansions of the rich, and then proceeds to burgle them while he is being entertained under their roof. And not just for the financial profit of stealing her ladyships’ jewels. More than that. For the thrill of it! Raffles hunts these family treasures in much the same way, and for the same motivation as his hosts might pursue foxes.

And why is Raffles invited to their homes at all?

Certainly not because of his social background. In the snobbery of the English class system – and Hornung is really very good at exposing its silliness – Raffles in himself is a nothing. He knows a lot of people who are members of what we might call the Class, but he is never one of them. They invite him as a guest purely because of his talent on the cricket field, his ability as an all-rounder. The fact that he gets mentioned in the newspapers.

Though Raffles has been to a minor public school, he is really not at all a member of the Class. He has no ancient lineage, and, though he might have a set of rooms at Albany, very little in the way of cash – except what he makes from fencing stolen goods. He has a moral code of sorts – he never robs anyone who can’t bear the loss. Hornung was, I think, very clever to root his hero in the middle-class, who in the 1890s were eclipsing the upper-class and the aristocracy. There is something in Raffles as a middle-class of the entrepreneur, even if it is by the way of crime. His is the class on the rise. His victims are effectively social dinosaurs.

Doyle’s concerns about Hornung making the hero a villain tend to be disregarded by the reader. The morality of Raffles’ situation tends to be ignored because of what George Orwell called the ‘sheer efficiency’ of the storytelling. The reader gets so wrapped up in the telling that scruples are banished from the mind.

In the later stories, featured in the volume “The Black Mask”, Raffles comes back to life, after his Holmesian fake death, as Mr Maturin, a supposed invalid living quietly in the London suburbs. Raffles of Albany has been exposed. His cricketing and gentleman’s club days are over and Raffles is in hiding. He meets up with Bunny and they resume their life of crime, this time in a more covert way.

There are no invitations to the homes of the ‘Grand’ this time round. But the stories are every bit as good. Hornung can do the suburbs of London every bit as effectively as the great houses of England. There is a kind of wistful, autumnal feel to some of these later tales. Wonderful portrayals of late Victorian England. Hornung is in many ways a considerable literary stylist. He could probably have built quite a reputation writing more mainstream novels.

Raffles has featured a great deal in the theatre, in films and on television. In the cinema he has been played notably by Ronald Colman and David Niven. There were some quite early stage productions. More recently Graham Greene penned a modestly successful play “The Return of AJ Raffles.”

On television in the 1970s Raffles was played very successfully by Anthony Valentine with Christopher Strauli as a very innocent-faced Bunny, and the late Victor Carin as a quite superb Inspector Mackenzie. We’ve just watched them again and found them thoroughly enjoyable this time round. More recently, there was a one-off television production with Nigel Havers as Raffles. This was interesting because they ditched the character of Bunny altogether and gave Raffles a companion who was East End working class with criminal abilities worthy of the master himself. If you enjoy classic television do seek them out.

Hornung was one of those authors who gave a word and an image to the English language. Today, when we hear the name Raffles, we hardly think of the imperialist Sir Stamford Raffles, but usually only of a gentleman-burglar in a top hat and crape mask, forcing open the casement of a country house and filching a diamond necklace from a safe hidden between the bookshelves of a sumptuous library.

Quite an achievement for any writer.

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Reginald Hill’s “The Woodcutter”

Reginald Hill’s “The Woodcutter”

“The Woodcutter” was Reginald Hill’s last published novel (2010), a standalone and in many ways it harks back to his earliest novels set in Cumbria such as “Fell of Dark” and “The Long Kill”. A long novel of nearly six hundred very gripping pages.

And the theme of his book takes some of the elements of those two novels and re-presents them in a startling and dramatic way. It is as though all the shackles of the crime genre have been removed from the author and he has a free hand to experiment with narration, character and plot reliability.

The leading character Wolf Hadda is a rich and successful businessman, whose world suddenly comes crashing down. He finds himself accused of child abuse and importing child pornography. Is he guilty, or has he been set up, and who by?

Wolf is a man with many enemies, in business, on the fringes of the security services, and in his personal relationships. Having served his sentence he returns to his ancestral background in Cumbria, living a rough life with his dog (and the dog is a magnificent literary creation in his own right!) in a lonely cottage.

It is from here that he begins to investigate what happened in his own past. But is he a reliable narrator of events, or just telling people what he wants to hear? You are never quite sure until the end of the book.

And there is something quite fairy-tale-ish in the idea of someone called Wolf living in a wood. A feeling of the Brothers Grimm about the whole tale. And Hill plays with our senses magnificently, the book has some quiet darkly comedic shades. There is tragedy, comedy and wit in the narrative. There are subtle jokes and a great deal of word-play. His descriptions of the Lake District are often stunningly beautiful, very realistic and the tale comes to a dramatic conclusion amidst the Lakeland mountains.

Every character is well delineating, from the sinister JC of the secret service to the women in Wolf’s life such as his wife Imogen, and his prison psychiatrist, Alva Ozigbo, who has to try to unravel the very complicated web surrounding the life and past of Wolf Hadda. “The Woodcutter” is a novel of multiple viewpoints, all of which have to be constantly questioned, for the novel takes you in many directions you weren’t expecting.

I shan’t say any more about the plot, for this is a book you really should seek out and read for yourselves. I think it is Hill’s masterpiece. A book that will haunt you long after you close the covers.

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John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps

It’s hard to believe that John Buchan’s classic thriller “The Thirty-Nine Steps” was first published a hundred years ago, in October 1915, following a serial publication in Blackwood’s Magazine the previous summer.

John Buchan Country near Broughton

John Buchan Country near Broughton

John Buchan Country

John Buchan Country

The adventures of Richard Hannay as he is pursued both by the police and German spies across the lonely hills of Galloway and Tweeddale have entranced readers ever since. It is, without question, the finest chase thriller ever written (though, arguably, Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male” comes in as a close second.)

“The Thirty-Nine Steps” was written in the first months of the Great War. Many of Buchan’s friends were already fighting in France and Belgium, but Buchan himself was ill and confined to bed. He spent the time writing what was to become his most famous work, though he always referred to it as a “shocker”.

In his dedication to his friend the publisher Tommy Nelson, who was later to be killed in the trenches, he described his new book as ‘a romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’ – a definition that Raymond Chandler considered ‘a pretty good formula for the thriller of any kind.’

And the pace of “The Thirty-Nine Steps” is terrific. It could have been written yesterday, with its immediacy and non-stop action. The fate of Richard Hannay has inspired hundreds of ‘innocent in peril’ thrillers ever since, both books and films. It has been, of course, an enormous influence on filmmakers, particularly Alfred Hitchcock who made an film of the book in 1935 – even if he did fiddle considerably with Buchan’s plot.

And on the subject of the film versions, there have been three. Hitchcock’s starring Robert Donat, a 1960 version with Kenneth More and a 1970s take – actually properly set in 1914 – with Robert Powell (who went on to play Hannay again in an off-piste but entertaining TV series). All three are enormous fun and worth seeing, but they do take quite a few liberties with the original. There was also a recent BBC TV film about which the less said the better!

Where Buchan is very good is in his spirit of place. A considerable walker in wild places, he captures the Scottish landscape in a way that no other writer ever has, exceeding the descriptive powers of even Scott, Stevenson and Munro. You smell the heather, feel the wet of the hill-rain, sweat under the sun of a hot day in the Borders. You experience the physically exhausting – though sometimes exhilarating – experience of the man-hunt, as Hannay is pursued from one adventurous peril to another. Buchan put his great knowledge of every corner of these Scottish hills to very good use.

For decades Buchan was dismissed as a very slight writer, but he had had a considerable re-evaluation in recent years. His stature as one of the masters of Scottish fiction has at last been recognised. And he has a real relevance to the modern world. “Greenmantle”, the sequel to “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, gives a take on middle-eastern politics that seems very contemporary and shows a deep understanding of much that confronts the world today.
I have lost count of the number of times I have read “The Thirty-Nine Steps”. I could probably rewrite it from memory. But how I long to set out again with Richard Hannay as he flees a busy London and begins his long chase across the Border hills from some lonely railway station in Galloway.

Since I first read the novel as a boy, I have come to know some of these hills myself and can vouch for the accuracy of Buchan’s descriptions. In many ways Buchan has influenced my own writing. I was as pleased as punch when a reviewer, very generously, compared my recent thriller “Balmoral Kill” to the works of Buchan.

If you’ve never followed the adventures of Richard Hannay through “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, “Greenmantle”, “Mr Standfast”, “The Three Hostages” and “The Island of Sheep” please do try them.

And if you can, in the centenary year of the “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, why not see if you can get up to the hills of the Scottish Borders and pretend, just for a delicious childish moment, that you ARE Richard Hannay, being chased through the heather by some sinister and very deadly gentry with guns.

You might also like to seek out a lovely book of essays on the novel by John Burnett and Kate Mackay entitle “John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps”, published by National Museum Scotland. The website of the John Buchan Society is worth a visit too.

The town of Peebles has a very good museum dedicated to the life and works of John Buchan. And for a taste of Buchan country try walking the thirteen-mile John Buchan Way from Broughton to Peebles. You can download a route leaflet from the internet.

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