Tag Archives: mystery

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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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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On Writing Darker – A Guest Post by Crime Author M.K. Graff

This week we’re delighted to welcome American crime author Marni Graff, to tell us about her latest novel The Golden Hour. We love Marni’s Nora Tierney English Mysteries series. They’re a wonderful blend of contemporary murder mysteries with the best elements of classic Golden Age whodunits and it’s fascinating to read about England through the eyes of a crime novelist from ‘across the pond’!

When I decided to write a mystery series, one of the things that I was determined NOT to do was to write the same book all the time. In my Nora Tierney English Mysteries, American children’s book author Nora has solved murders in Oxford and the Lake District. However, all three, starting with The Blue Virgin, through The Green Remains and The Scarlet Wench, have been “Whodunits,” as I’ve wanted to explore what would made a person feel it’s reasonable to take another human’s life.  goldenhour_cover_final_front.jpg

When it came time to plot the fourth, The Golden Hour, I wanted to do more than vary the setting. I decided to veer into new territory for me, and instead wrote a “Cantheystophim” mystery, featuring a psychopath named Viktor Garanin, whose life’s goal is to destroy the English people. There are scenes in Brighton, Cornwall, and Oxford, with a hefty dose of action taking place in Bath.

The theme of this book revolves around “defining family and home.” We see Nora and her partner, DI Declan Barnes, deciding where they will live and what their future together looks like. Declan is handed a very difficult case in Oxford, the death of an Ashmolean Museum art restorer, just as Nora is leaving for a week, first to travel to Cornwall to bring her almost-year old son for his first visit to the home of his paternal grandparents. Despite the death of her fiancée, which occurred before The Blue Virgin opened, Nora is slowly developing a relationship with Sean’s British grandparents. She’s bringing a teething baby to an estate filled with priceless antiques and art, and is trying not to feel overwhelmed.

After that brief visit she heads to Bath for a friend’s home and her first bookshop reading and signing on the occasion of the publication of her second children’s book. The twist is that just before she leaves, she tells Declan she feels she’s being followed and hands him a bug she’s found in her cavernous bag.

How her stalker ties in with Declan’s case, and what those ramifications will be for the young family, will have startling consequences once Nora arrives in Bath.
The new book is decidedly darker than the previous three, and beta readers have told me they think Viktor Garanin is a grand character. The surprising reveal to me as a writer, with three other books in print in this series and one in my second series, was how much fun I had developing this psychopath’s character. Viktor is a super baddie, yet likes his garden and has fond memories of his grandmother—but don’t let that fool you. He’s as evil as they come.

THE GOLDEN HOUR is available on Amazon.com and through Bridle Path
Press: http://www.bridlepathpress.com. In trade paperback, Kindle and soon on Audible.

From the award-winning author of three previous Nora Tierney English Mysteries comes her most chilling novel to date.

Nora Tierney’s decision to move with her young son from Cumbria back to Oxford means house-hunting with her partner, DI Declan Barnes, even though she can’t shake the feeling she’s being followed. Declan’s new case, the death of a young art conservator, brings international concerns and an unexpected partner. How these overlap when Nora heads to Bath for her first bookstore signing will find her fighting to save her child and the family she’s trying to create.

Award-winning author Marni Graff writes The Nora Tierney English Mysteries and The Trudy Genova Manhattan Mysteries, in addition to her crime review blog, Auntie M Writes: http://www.auntiemwrites.com
Praise for THE GOLDEN HOUR:

Elly Griffiths (The Ruth Galloway Mysteries; The Magic Men series): “Nora Tierney tackles her most complex and captivating mystery yet.”

Ausma Zehanat Khan (Among the Ruins, The Unquiet Dead): “One of the best things about Marni Graff’s latest Nora Tierney mystery, The Golden Hour, is the down-to-earth depiction of family life coupled with the tightly paced build of a twisty, time-honored puzzle. A meditation on love, loss and motherhood, The Golden Hour blends touchingly real domesticity with tongue-in-cheek humor, as the backdrop to a tale of art theft, germ warfare, and international conspiracy. The reflections of a reprehensible villain on the shortcomings of the British add just the right note of comedy to these otherwise weighty concerns. Added to this is a wonderful sense of place—Bath, Brighton, and Oxford are vividly rendered and charmingly true to life. Come for the crackling mystery, stay for the steady companionship of debonair detective Declan Barnes and feisty heroine, Nora Tierney, who offers warmth and smarts in equal measure.”

Sarah Ward (The DC Childs Mysteries): “The Golden Hour is a compulsive read with a narrative that both charms and surprises. I love Nora Tierney and can’t wait to see what happens next.”

 

 

 

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My Quest Novel On Sale

My Victorian thriller Deadly Quest is on sale for Kindle readers for just 99 pence/cents until late on Monday night. Just click the link below to have a look and to start reading for free…

This is to mark the fact that I’m now writing the third book in the William Quest series – it doesn’t have a title as yet. Unlike the first two books, which were set in London and Norfolk, this one is set in the winding streets and ginnels of York.

And – as Quest has never been to York before – this puts him at a considerable disadvantage as he faces menacing new foes.

I’ll let you know how the writing goes. Hopefully, the book will be finished by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t started the series, do seek out the first two books The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest…

Enjoy the books…

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Francis Thompson as Jack the Ripper

It’s a very long time since I last read any of the poetry of Francis Thompson, though his work is probably worth another look if you are interested in fin de siecle London. He still has his admirers and I recall that there used to be a Francis Thompson Society, and that Thompson was a leading figure celebrated long after his death by The 1890s Society.Jack the Ripper: The Works of Francis Thompson by [Patterson, Richard]

I’d almost forgotten about him until I was sent a copy of Richard Patterson’s book Jack the Ripper: The Works of Francis Thompson. A most enjoyable and intriguing read, even if it doesn’t altogether convince me that Thompson was the Whitechapel killer.

However, were I a police detective at the time, looking at Mr Patterson’s evidence, I would certainly put Thompson in the frame for further investigation.

Now, about twenty years ago, I spent a great deal of time researching Jack the Ripper. I remember long days (and nights) walking the streets of Whitechapel and many hours in dusty archives, including those of the British Library and Museum of London.  I came to no particular conclusion as to the identity of the murderer, and I thought then – and I think now – that there will never be a definitive answer as to just who Jack was.

Jack the Ripper books tend to follow the same pattern; a few chapters on the misery of the East End at the time, followed by detailed accounts of the discovery of each victim and the immediate aftermath and the police investigations. Most Ripper books then try to put a favoured suspect in the frame. Some authors go to extraordinary lengths to twist the facts to represent their chosen candidate as the Ripper.

Mr Patterson’s book takes a different approach, which I welcome. He certainly writes about the East End and the victims of this maniac but he wisely assumes that the Ripper reader is already familiar with much of the background. He then spends much of the book looking at the biography of Francis Thompson himself and explaining just why he thinks Thompson could be the Ripper.

At first glance the fragile Thompson, plagued by ill-health, seems an unlikely candidate. But Thompson was a medical student who enjoyed dissecting cadavers, wrote poetry about prostitutes, indulged in a spot of arson when he was young and was an opium addict. He was haunted by the hell-fire of an over-religious upbringing,  lived on the streets of London during the relevant period and fell in with a prostitute who at first looked after him and then betrayed him, sending him – Mr Patterson suggests – into a murderous rage.

However, even such a promising background doesn’t necessarily create a serial killer.  There are a great many sad individuals who do much of the above but don’t take it to the final extreme of murder. Though, Mr Patterson doesn’t try to force his candidate down the reader’s throat (unlike one or two Ripper authors I could mention).  The author wisely invites readers to make up their own minds.

The evidence is, as it has to be, circumstantial. There is no killer blow (no pun intended) which definitively puts Francis Thompson in the frame for the Whitechapel murders.

One problem I have with all Ripper candidate books is that we always get the case for the prosecution, but hardly much of the defence brief. And I cling to the principle that anyone accused of murder should get a fair trial. Sadly, there is no modern biographer of Francis Thompson who could look at this evidence and give an opinion.

That being said, Mr Patterson is fairer than most Ripper authors to his subject, and at the end of the day every reader and Ripperologist must make up his or her own mind.

This is a very enjoyable, well-written book and a  fascinating contribution to the age-old debate. Recommended reading for anyone interested in late Victorian crime and society.

 

 

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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang by Mike Ripley

Mike Ripley’s new non-fiction book is subtitled “The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed” and it makes for wonderful reading. We’ve both very much enjoyed it and thoroughly recommend it to you. Once you’ve read it right through, you’ll want to dip in and browse again and again.

I think Mr Ripley and I must be of an age, for we both seem to have enjoyed the same British thriller writers in those happy decades, the fifties to the seventies. I suspect we even had the same editions, with covers that were iconic in themselves and which still deluge me with waves of nostalgia when I see them in second-hand bookshops. (We have quite a few on our shelves).

All the great favourites are here; Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Alastair Maclean, Hammond Innes, Jack Higgins, Desmond Bagley – many still fondly remembered, and often re-read by me; plus lots of authors I’d forgotten about but enjoyed at the time. Mr Ripley’s book has made me want to seek out a host of old favourites.

Mr Ripley gives an introductory background on the golden age of the British thriller during this period, which is both witty and perceptive. He examines the indelible influence of the Second World War and Britain’s loss of Empire, weaving a fascinating look at our post-war social history.

He then looks at each author in greater detail with analysis of the giants of the genre and lesser-known writers. Anyone too young to have read these novels as they came out will find this a source of endless inspiration. And there are some fascinating insights into how thriller-writers work. If you aspire to write a thriller, this is a good place to start.

And there’s a splendid foreword by Lee Child, a writer who carries on the great tradition.

Mike Ripley’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a definitive reference book. Superbly researched with affectionate, expert commentary, this is essential reading for anyone who loves the genre.

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‘The Power-House by John Buchan

First serialised in 1913 in Blackwood’s Magazine, The Power-House was published as a book in 1916. At a slim 110 pages, we’d call this a novella if newly published today but at the time of writing, it would have been considered a short novel. The Polygon edition has a very good introduction by Stella Rimington, thriller novelist and a previous Director-General of MI5.  Power House

There’s an interesting dedication to Major-General Sir Francis Lloyd, K.G.B. Buchan ends this by saying: among the many tastes which we share, one is a liking for precipitous yarns. What a lovely description of the kind of thriller Buchan often referred to as his shockers.

The Power-House is the first full-length adventure of Sir Edward Leithen, one of Buchan’s semi-regular series’ characters. (He first appeared in Space, a short story published a year earlier). Ned Leithen is a prosperous Scottish barrister and M.P, living in London, hard-working and unashamedly unadventurous. His daily life is a round of chambers, House, club and flat.

I was a peaceful sedentary man, a lover of a quiet life, with no appetite for perils and commotions.

In many ways he’s a forerunner of Hitchcock’s ordinary chap who gets mixed up in dangerous conspiracies – although Leithen is a gentleman, a pillar of the establishment who mixes in the best circles in London clubland and country estates.

The novel opens with a preface from an editor, a device Buchan sometimes used, presumably to distance author from narrator. The preface states that Leithen recounted the following events during a sporting trip to Scotland. When six male guests settled themselves in the smoking-room for a sleepy evening of talk and tobacco.

The tale is narrated in the first person. As Leithen leaves the House of Commons, Tommy Deloraine, a fellow M.P and old pal, tells him he’s setting off abroad. He’s hot on the trail of a friend who has disappeared after getting mixed up with strange company.

Leithen has a presentiment that trouble’s brewing at home in London and decides to be watchful. Shortly afterwards, he gets his first intimation of what’s going on and the game’s afoot.

Despite being concise in length, I’ve always regarded The Power-House as one of the great London novels. Buchan was the most wonderful writer of landscape, renowned for his lyrical description of wild Scotland but equally skilled at depicting pastoral England or the crowded capital in May.

Out of doors it was jolly spring weather; there was greenery in Parliament Square and bits of gay colour, and a light wind was blowing up from the river.

In thriller-writing it’s customary for atmosphere to be sacrificed to exciting pace. With Buchan, you always get both. He was superb at evoking the dull, secretive grey streets north of Oxford Street in London’s West End. In The Power-House, you can see the seeds of several ideas later used in the Richard Hannay shockers. He returned to this part of London with great effect in The Three Hostages, published in 1924.

One of the greatest scenes in The Power-House features an early example of Buchan’s exciting set-piece chases. A stunning piece of writing, for Buchan understood that peaceful streets and indifferent passers-by can be made far more menacing than the clichéd sinister settings of lesser fiction. I can’t think of a thriller writer better at screwing up tension by juxtaposing ordinary, cheerful detail.

This is also the first time one of Buchan’s lasting themes was introduced – the fragility of civilisation, its thin veneer separating us from world upheaval. We meet the prototype of Buchan’s memorable villains. Always a compelling adversary with a double identity, cultured and welcomed among the highest in society.

It’s worth remembering that the novel would have been thought out against a background of growing unease in Buchan’s political and diplomatic circles. The rise of Kaiser Wilhelm’s sea-power had inspired another great spy novel, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of The Sands back in 1903. The Power-House is a snapshot of London just as the long Edwardian summer is disappearing. The lights are about to go out.

If Buchan has any flaw, it’s his over-reliance on coincidence but that’s something I’m more than happy to overlook – and all writers need it somewhere. We’re lifelong fans and think him one of Scotland’s finest ever writers. Buchan’s work was strongly influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson which is recommendation enough.

Sir Edward Leithen is perhaps not as famed as Richard Hannay though he features in several more novels and short stories, all of them wonderful. The Power-House is an unmissable first adventure.

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The Victorian Underworld

A little while ago, I blogged about Kellow Chesney’s classic book The Victorian Underworld, one of the best and most readable introductions to the subject for the general reader.

Donald Thomas’s book has the same title and covers some of the same ground, but it’s well worth a read as well. Reading both books will give you a good working knowledge of the subject and suggest avenues of research you might care to follow.

Mr Thomas is well known as an academic, an historian and biographer, and as a writer of crime fiction – I reviewed his novel Jekyll, Alias Hyde recently. He has also written a detective series and some Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Victorian Underworld, was first published in 1998 and was shortlisted for a CWA Golden Dagger.

Thomas begins with a prologue entitled “Darkest England,” setting the scene for the Victorian townscapes and countryside where the underworld thrived.

Mr Thomas pulls no punches in exposing of the hypocrisy of Victorian Britain. Sheer poverty drove people towards crime because of the basic need to survive.

On a personal note, I must say I get a little weary of present-day politicians preaching the merits of Victorian values,  and yearning to recreate such a world. Victorian Britain must have been an interesting place to live if you were very wealthy – but for the vast majority, it was a long struggle often just to put bread on the table.

As Aristotle pointed out a few thousand years ago, “poverty is the main cause of crime and revolution.” The Victorian Establishment suppressed – often with considerable brutality – most attempts to even up the odds.

The Underworld of the Age was an inevitable reaction to a Victorian lack of decency and fairness. Although there was a great deal of casual crime, there was also a considerable amount of criminal organisation. Mr Thomas looks at both in great detail.

Here we have the thieves, the swell mob and the pornographers, the way justice was loaded against the poor and there’s a lengthy examination of corruption at the heart of the Establishment and, in particular, at Scotland Yard.

There is a very good chapter on the stealing of the Crimean gold from a moving train, fictionalised in a book and a film by Michael Crichton as The First Great Train Robbery. The reality of the crime is much more sensational than any work of fiction.

Mr Thomas deals well with the subject of Victorian sexuality – there were, after all, tens of thousands of prostitutes on the streets of London.

He devotes a chapter to the mysterious memoirist called Walter, whose voluminous My Secret Life, gives some vivid pen-sketches by a man who was a customer of these women. There’s also a look at W.T Stead’s exposure of child prostitution and a glance at Victorian homosexuality.

Mr Thomas’s book was first published a few years after I first studied the Victorian Underworld as an undergraduate, doing a minor in Victorian social history at the University of East Anglia.

I seem to recall that, apart from the Kellow Chesney book, I was obliged to seek out primary sources – and so one should. But for the general reader without a great deal of time, these two books by Mr Chesney and Mr Thomas, offer a very readable and fascinating introduction.

My interest in the history of the Victorian Underworld has never wavered. I’ve read a lot more since graduation and tried to portray this world as accurately as possible in my own novels The Shadow of William Quest and Deadly Quest.

 

 

 

 

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The IPCRESS File – Film review

One of my favourite films, The IPCRESS File is based on the famous first novel by Len Deighton. It’s been decades since I read it – and its sequels – though I should make time for a re-read, as I watch the film every couple of years. (I have re-read Deighton’s later Bernard Samson espionage novels and his military history. I’m a huge fan of them all).The Ipcress File [DVD]

Released in 1965, The IPCRESS File is a near perfect, Cold War era, spy film, directed by Sidney J. Furie. Cinematography, cast, locations, pace, plot, themes and score, it doesn’t put a foot wrong.

The main character, Harry Palmer, is played by Michael Caine in his first leading rôle. Very much up-and-coming, this part is credited with making him a star. Generally, I’ve mixed feelings about Caine’s acting. He seems to be in many films I love and has a strong screen presence. Though I find it hard to forget it’s him, whatever the part. Fortunately, he’s well-cast here as a laconic, working-class Londoner.

Apparently the part was first offered to Christopher Plummer – who’d already played a spy in Triple Cross, (based on the exploits of real-life agent, Eddie Chapman). Plummer turned it down in order to make The Sound of Music. The part was then offered to Richard Harris, who later regretted not taking it.

Harry Palmer is an army sergeant working for Military Intelligence, cocky, insolent, very much his own man. His superior, Colonel Ross, has him transferred to a secret counter-intelligence unit run by a Major Dalby. Ross all but blackmails Palmer, on account of fiddles he was working in Berlin. Palmer’s main concern is whether he’ll get a pay rise.

Dalby’s current operation concerns an alarming ‘brain drain’, a popular term in the Sixties. British scientists are going missing. The film’s opening sequence illustrating this is terrific; set in Marylebone Station, nostalgic with steam and porters and deeply sinister. A reluctant Palmer soon finds out he’s replacing an agent who was murdered.

The supporting cast is superb. Ross is played by Guy Doleman, cool, upper-class, finding Palmer and Dalby equally distasteful. Nigel Green plays Dalby, shifty-looking and shrewd. Two fine character actors, they give wonderful performances, verbally fencing in every scene. Green had memorably worked with Michael Caine on Zulu, which gave Caine’s career a considerable leg-up, a year earlier.

The leading lady is the lovely, sultry Sue Lloyd, who would star in the 1966 television series The Baron. The ever-likable Gordon Jackson plays a fellow agent, long before he ran his own department in The Professionals and there are compelling cameos from Thomas Baptiste and Frank Gatliff.

The IPCRESS File was publicised as a more realistic alternative to the Secret Service of James Bond and Harry Palmer – unnamed in the novel – as Bond’s antithesis. This was the first time, (as far as I know), that an action hero was seen in glasses. The heavy black frames worn by Michael Caine had quite a following after the film aired. More tea-urn than martinis, there’s absolutely no glamour and all the better for it.

Rather than exotic locations, this film celebrates a realistic London of crowded pavements, grey skies and dull, anonymous buildings in pitted Portland stone. There’s no sense of the Swinging Sixties, in feeling it harks back to the beginning of the decade.

Iconic backdrops are rationed, though Major Dalby’s office windows overlook Trafalgar Square, all red buses and pigeons. There’s one tense set-piece against the rounded facade of the Royal Albert Hall and a beautifully directed scene in the echoing London Science Library.

Dalby’s operation is in one such seedy building, fronted by Alice who runs a fake employment agency. A lovely performance by Freda Bamford, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, down-at-heel, calling everyone dear, she’s the epitome of an office tea-lady. Except she’s an agent, taking her place at Dalby’s briefing in a smoke-wreathed projection room.

Again in contrast to James Bond, the spying business is shown to be as dreary as any other with tedious, form-filling bureaucracy. The difference being that these lowly Civil Servants are pawns in a deadly game. They’re cannon-fodder.

The cinematography by Otto Heller is stunning with wonderful use of shadows and odd angles. Filming from the light fitting for instance, gives a voyeuristic feel as though the viewer too is watching an operation in the dark, cramped projection room.

One of the things I love about The IPCRESS File is its sense of changing times. It catches Britain on the cusp, when looking back to the War was giving way to a new modern age. In a brief space after the Profumo affair and before the Summer of Love, the bomb sites are still being cleared and brutal concrete and glass buildings are going up.

Colonel Ross, a traditional ‘dinosaur’, meets Palmer in a Safeway supermarket, a new phenomenon to Britain. He’s uncomfortable pushing a trolley, disdainful and bemused by the shoppers. Palmer, an accomplished cook, is perfectly at home. I remember my Grandma remarking on the opening of a supermarket in our nearest town and saying what a con self-service was, making the customer do the work! A widely-held view at the time.

Len Deighton wrote a very enjoyable book on French cookery in the Sixties. My family had a copy. In a scene in Palmer’s flat, when he expertly breaks eggs one-handed, for an omlette, the hands used in close-up belong to Deighton. The author wrote a cookery column in The Observer at that time, in comic-strip, a recipe form which he invented. Some are framed on the wall in Palmer’s kitchen-area.

Another of the film’s strengths is its take on our awful British class system. Colonel Ross is upper-middle, officer class and clearly regards Harry Palmer as a working class oik. Major Dalby, who also looks down on Palmer, is more lower-middle class. He’s looked down upon by Ross (this is getting complicated) and you feel Dalby probably went to a second-rate public school. Ross and Dalby are both at home in The Establishment, a world of higher Civil Servants and gentlemens’ clubs.

What’s interesting is that Harry Palmer seems to represent a new class-less Britain. He doesn’t give a hoot for his so-called ‘betters.’ And he may be hard-up and have a Cockney accent but we’re shown that he’s the one who truly appreciates the finer things in life, such as good food and classical music. Palmer is, what Geoffrey Household – another superb British spy novelist – called Class X, someone outside the system.

The IPCRESS File builds to a very satisfying climax, underlined by John Barry’s memorably edgy score. The effectively tense, jangly notes came from using a cimbalom, a type of dulcimer.

I love the final scene. Brief and understated, it conveys so much about the British stiff-upper-lip we used to have. The IPCRESS File is a marvellous Cold War spy film. A taut, exciting adventure which also has acute social commentary. Nostalgia at its best and an icon of British film history.

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The Murder in Romney Marsh by Edgar Jepson

Edgar Jepson (1863-1938) was a popular detective novelist of the Golden Age. He translated Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin stories and also wrote supernatural tales. Jepson was the grandfather of novelist and scriptwriter, Fay Weldon. The Murder in Romney Marsh (Black Heath Classic Crime) by [Jepson, Edgar]

The Murder in Romney Marsh was first published in 1929. The chapters have cryptic titles, a popular device at the time. A businessman named Robert Garfield has been murdered in the village of St Joseph on Romney Marsh. Garfield lived in London and used his country home, Applecross Farm, as a shooting-box. James Carthew, a young inspector is sent from Scotland Yard to assist the local police, who are -in time-honoured fashion – baffled.

Inspector Carthew has a jaunty air about him. He’s been waiting for a chance to prove himself and feels this case may be it. At first, he passes himself off as a young gentleman who wished to amuse himself on a holiday. When he first examines the murder scene, he pretends he’s out rough shooting, looking for spent cartridges.

I stuck my eyeglass in my eye – nothing gives a man an air of greater simplicity than an eyeglass properly used. Has he been reading Dorothy L. Sayers?

Superintendent Goad, Carthew’s boss dislikes him because:

He preferred men of his own kind, men who had put in from seven to twelve years as ordinary police constables before they passed into C.I.D., whereas, after being demobilized and spending my gratuity, I had only spent two years as an ordinary constable before I passed into it. Also he did not like in me what I once heard a business man call ‘The Public School Taint’ in me.

Inspector Carthew has a conceited manner, full of confidence, though he is astute. He doesn’t want to share his findings with Collins, the local policeman. He’s a bit of a user and very keen to get full credit at the Yard for his work.

He narrates the story in first person, not the most common choice for detective novels. It gives an immediacy as the reader knows all his thoughts on deduction but we lose a more rounded view of what’s happening. The structure has to stay completely linear. I noticed how everything goes Carthew’s way. From the moment he arrives on the Marsh, he finds one clue leads to another. The jigsaw fits in place without setbacks.

Carthew is an interesting character. For a Scotland Yard inspector, he isn’t wholly moral. Once he falls for a suspect, he’s prepared to bend the rules, holding back facts from Collins and obliquely steering the lady out of trouble. We’re left to wonder whether Superintendent Goad dislikes Carthew for being ‘cocky’ and not one of the lads. He’d never stand for rule-bending so he can’t know about that.

Or is Goad prejudiced about a personable young chap with an old school tie and fast promotion? For there’s something likable about Carthew and he is on the side of justice – if not the letter of the law. Jepson’s characterisation makes Inspector Carthew very believable and way above a stock detective.

All the village characters are well-drawn, although a couple of foreign villains with exaggerated accents seemed strangely familiar. There are some interesting glimpses of class attitudes of the time. The local vicar is an old comrade of Carthew’s from the War. Here he discusses the vicar’s step-daughters who are hard up, have nothing useful to do and rarely meet anyone new:

Wouldn’t it be better for them to get a job – shorthand and typewriting or something of that kind?

No, such jobs lead to nothing. And then it would mean their living alone in a big town and long hours and poor pay and associating with people of a lower class.

The novel has a convincing atmosphere of Romney Marsh – in Kent, on the border with Sussex. There are some lovely descriptions of the haunting, flat landscape with its autumn mists seeping over the sea wall, plank-bridged dykes, warm-tiled cottages and fine, ancient churches. The Marsh is sheep country and its shepherds are known as lookers. A sinister name, harking back to the area’s smuggling history. This is a fascinating area, for ever associated with Russell Thorndike’s wonderful Doctor Syn stories.

There’s much to enjoy in The Murder in Romney Marsh, especially if you want to get a feel for what rural England was like between the wars. This is a good, escapist, detective yarn. A typical example of the kind so popular with readers trying to forget the horrors of the Great War and blot out the shadow of the war to come. It isn’t too hard to get the murderer though the conclusion is very well-reasoned and the outcome for Inspector Carthew is surprising. Well worth a read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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