Tag Archives: thriller

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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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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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 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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Harry’s Game – The Television Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers

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

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

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

So here goes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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