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A Good Month for Murder – Review

August 1, 2016

I have a piece in Shotsmag reviewing Del Quentin Wilber’s fascinating true-crime work A Good Month for Murder: The Inside Story of a Homicide Squad. Here’s the link.


Eurosceptic Crime Fiction: What Now?

July 2, 2016

Well the results are in, and to the astonishment of practically everyone, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. I’ve been studying and publishing about the rather niche subject of Eurosceptic crime fiction for a few years now, and I’ve made my feelings known about the EU, so you can probably guess the way I voted.

For millions of people throughout the country, myself included, the referendum put a strain on personal and professional relationships. I think we’re all relieved it’s over, even if the vote didn’t go the way we would have wished.

There has been some sour grapes on the Remain side, but I can hardly blame them. I found myself rereading George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir The Light’s on at Signpost (2002) in which he discusses the 1975 referendum in which Britain voted to stay in the EEC:

The holding of a referendum more than a year after entry was a cynical fraud, and not only because it was preceded by a massive campaign to ensure a “yes” vote. The claim that this was a fair procedure was rather like pretending that there is no difference between giving a man on shore a free choice of getting into a boat or remaining on land, and forcing him aboard, rowing him out to sea, and then asking him if he wants to get out or not.

In economic terms, the result has already put a few people out of work, for there is simply no reason to produce any more Eurosceptic thrillers (and only a few titles had been produced so far). Just as the genre looked set to take off, it lost its raison d’être. The question now is will the Eurosceptic genre spread to the continent like the Brexit contagion. We’ve already had one novel from an Icelandic writer, and another by a British writer which was set in Budapest. It’s an inventive, prophesying genre, and it has the potential to spread. It’s worth noting that the last two novels I reviewed, Peter Preston’s 51st State (1998) and Andrew Marr’s Head of State (2014), both accurately predicted Britain would leave the EU in a surprise referendum result. Marr repeated the prediction shortly before the vote.

Judging by their Twitter feeds, I’d guess that a majority of genre writers were in favour of staying in the EU, but the most vocal were the minority of writers who campaigned to leave. I’m thinking particularly of Frederick Forsyth, Tony Parsons and the incomparable Dreda Say Mitchell.

Most of the sensible Leave campaigners struck a conciliatory tone after the vote. I hope we can all agree that we are no less European. After all, the Norwegians and Swiss are every bit as European as the Germans and French, but there is no appetite in Norway or Switzerland to join the EU. Just as the Highland farmer doesn’t want the Westminster MP interfering in his life, ultimately the British people didn’t want to be governed from Brussels.

Final thought: I like to think that PD James would have been very happy with the result.


EU Referendum Thrillers: A Primer

June 5, 2016

As there is less than a month to go before the referendum in which the British people will decide whether the United Kingdom will leave or remain in the European Union, I thought it was high time I returned to the niche subject of Eurosceptic crime fiction.

The fear that British democracy is being subsumed into a centralised, undemocratic and corrupt EU has proved a fruitful subject for several thriller writers. Some of the Eurosceptic thrillers I have looked at on this blog include Andrew Roberts The Aachen Memorandum (1995) which presents a dystopian view of Britain in the year 2045, now a colony in the United States of Europe. For a contemporary setting read Michael Dobbs A Sentimental Traitor (2011) and Alan Judd’s Uncommon Enemy (2012), both are rattling good yarns with stiff upper lip British heroes battling sinister EU bureaucrats. For Euroscepticism outside of a British setting there is the Icelandic writer Hallur Hallson’s rather heavy-going Vulture’s Lair (2012), and Adam Lebor’s The Budapest Protocol (2009). Lebor’s work is particularly impressively as much of the novel is concerned with exposing the discrimination against the Romani or Roma people in Central and South-Eastern Europe which, I believe, counteracts the claim that Eurosceptics are a right-wing fringe.

Head of State

Recently I came across two entertaining works to add to my list, both written by authors who one would not naturally describe as Eurosceptic. First, we have Andrew Marr’s Head of State (2014). Marr’s novel was published a year before the general election in which the Conservative party was returned to government and the EU referendum became inevitable. The plot is rather prescient as events begin three days prior to an EU referendum. The ‘In’ campaign is heavily reliant on the Prime Minister’s personal appeal (sound familiar?) and not on his pre-vote renegotiation, a vague promise to establish a freer-market, which looks like a less regulated EU for the richer northern countries (although that sounds better than what David Cameron actually achieved). But when the Prime Minister suddenly dies, his Euro-fanatical aides hatch a scheme to keep this information from the public unless its derails the expected ‘In’ vote. What follows is utterly preposterous, and if I told you the cast of characters included impressionist Rory Bremner (no really) you can probably guess the shenanigans that ensue.

I described Head of State as entertaining, I didn’t say it was particularly good. It received scathing reviews, none of which I’d argue with. Marr credits Lord Chadlington with giving him the basic plot, and the Tory peer writes a foreword defending the ridiculous narrative ‘we should remember that much of what we take today as ‘normal’ political behaviour would have been considered unthinkable fifty – or even twenty – years ago. Today, almost anything seems politically possible.’ Fair enough, but I hardly think civil servants decapitating the Prime Minister’s corpse and then running around Downing Street with body parts is very likely.

Peter Preston’s 51st State was published in 1998 and is a futuristic satire which possesses remarkable foresight. When Preston was writing, the big debate in UK politics was whether Britain should join the Single Currency51st State begins with Brexit: a late intervention by the mild-mannered Tory Leader of the House of Commons Rupert Warner (think Michael Gove) unexpectedly sways the country into voting to leave the EU. The suddenly popular Warner find himself elevated to the role of Prime Minister (think Boris), and Britain needs to rethink its place in the world, and its future. Warner is persuaded by his ambitious colleague Polly Gurley to join a political union with the United States, and Britain becomes the titular 51st State in the world’s only remaining superpower.

51st State is a better novel than Marr’s Head of State, with Preston more self-aware of the absurdities of the plot and producing better satire as a result. Neither writer shows much enthusiasm for the European Union (the Europhile Utopian-tinged views of Edward Heath and Tony Blair disappeared years ago) however, if I was to guess their personal views, they seem glumly resigned to Britain staying in the EU as the best of a collection of bad options.

Having studied Eurosceptic thrillers for a few years now, and reading many views from the other side of the debate, I can’t just resign myself to voting Remain in the knowledge that the EU is becoming more and more unaccountable, bureaucratic and arrogant with power.

I respect Marr and Preston as writers, but I’ll be voting Leave, and long live the Eurosceptic thriller!

51st State

Adapting le Carre: The Case for Our Game

May 18, 2016

I must admit I’ve been feeling some withdrawal symptons after the excellent TV adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager finished. le Carré’s novel of former hotel manager turned undercover spy Jonathan Pine’s mission to infiltrate an arms dealers’ entourage and bring Richard ‘the worst man in the world’ Roper to justice gripped me from beginning to end, and it made riveting viewing onscreen. In the US The Night Manager can currently be seen on AMC.

The Night Manager got me thinking about which other of le Carrè novels deserve to be adapted to film or television. Fourteen of le Carrè’s novels have so far been adapted for the small and silver screen, ranging from the Good (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), the Bad (A Perfect Spy), and the Ugly (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — film, not TV, version).

Hugh Laurie recently claimed that The Night Manager’s strength lay in the fact that it was the first novel le Carré published after the end of the Cold War, and as such it still managed to retain the hauntingly powerful resonance of his previous novels which had all been set in the ideological conflict between East and West: the longest and most complicated espionage duel the world had ever seen.

Alas, I don’t think the same power could be attributed to all of le Carré’s post- Cold War novels. Single and Single (1999) is dour and uninvolving. Absolute Friends (2003) veers dangerously close to anti-American bigotry. Both would make dull films. Of the Cold War novels yet to be adapted, I would love to see The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) onscreen, partly because it is a gripping, action-packed tale in which le Carré sketches some vivid portrayals of South East Asia and also because it features his most famous character — George Smiley. However, there are some obstacles to overcome from page to screen. The plot is fiendishly complex and would be difficult for a screenwriter to render concisely, and The Honourable Schoolboy is also the middle book of the Smiley Versus Karla trilogy, making the back-story an issue for the uninitiated viewer.

The 1995 novel Our Game, I believe, is a stronger candidate for adaptation. The plot develops from a relatively simple premise. Retired spy Tim Cranmer is visited by two police detectives one evening who grill him about the disappearance of his friend Larry Pettifer. Pettifer was Cranmer’s protégé in British intelligence, but they both seemingly left the world of espionage to pursue a more peaceful life. Recalled to London by his former spymasters, Cranmer learns that Pettifer has swindled the Russian government out of a small fortune. Pettifer’s motive is the conduit through which le Carré explores themes such as the nature of belief. Cranmer has typically British views: a dislike for ideology, a predilection to compromise and a belief in his country that is tempered by an understanding of its corruption. Despite the Christian symbolism of his name, Cranmer has no firm religious views:

I am not a God man, though I believe society is better for Him than without Him. I do not reject Him as Larry does, and then go scurrying after Him to apologise. But I do not accept Him either.

But if Cranmer can appreciate the status of the Church of England while never believing in its dogma, as Roger Scruton put it, ‘my tribal religion, the religion of the English who don’t believe a word of it’, then Pettifer, by contrast, is dashing idealism all the way. His undercover work put him in touch with the oppressed Ingush people of the Caucasus. Moved by their historical plight at the hands of the Tsarists, communists and finally the Russian Federation, Pettifer’s fraud was initiated to help the Ingush in their struggle for independence. The relationship between Cranmer and Pettifer is complicated further as Cranmer’s young mistress Emma has run off with his former friend. Should Cranmer try to rescue Pettifer from his folly or leave him to be hunted down by vengeful Russians? While le Carré never works up nailbiting suspense in  Our Game he nevertheless crafted a compelling and absorbing novel. The title refers to both the tradecraft of espionage and also ‘the annual festival of Winchester Football, a game so arcane  that even experienced players may not know all the rules.’ Cranmer and Pettifer both attended an elitist private school as children, and after the titular football game, Cranmer has to thrash New Boy Pettifer who found himself on the losing side. Pettifer refuses to comply with any of Cranmer’s demands that would allow him to give a softer beating:

‘Why didn’t you sing?’ I ask him, later that night as he bends over the same table.

‘It’s against my religion. I’m a Jew.’

‘No, you’re not. You’re father’s in the Church.’

‘I’ve converted.’

‘I’ll give you one chance,’ I say expansively. ‘What is the Notion for Winchester Football?’ It is the easiest test I can think of in the entire school vernacular, a gift.

‘Jew-baiting,’ he replies.

So I have no alternative but to beat him, when all he needed to say was Our Game.

In his recent writing le Carré seems to be at his best when he is imitating other writers. The Tailor of Panama (1996) is a tribute to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958) with its Foreign Office Englishman abroad theme. The Night Manager has a Bondian romantic adventure feel to it (le Carré would be loathe to admit it but the TV adaptation only confirmed the Fleming undertones of the story in my mind). Our Game has a Kiplingesque fascination and reverence for Ingushetia and its people, and this is what makes the narrative so powerful. Through imitation, le Carré has demonstrated that he is at his best when his authorial voice doesn’t swamp the text. Our Game’s complex, non-chronological structure would certainly be a challenge for the screen, but with two fine actors, the duel between Cranmer and Pettifer would be electrifying. Cranmer and Pettifer are, in effect, two sides of le Carré’s character. Cranmer is the Smiley-figure resigned to his fallen world and Pettifer is the young radical le Carré seems to regret he never became. In this tension between them, one voice never drowns out the other.




Crimefest Awards 2016

April 28, 2016

The shortlist for Crimefest awards has been announced:

Audible Sounds of Crime Award:

 – Rachel Abbott for Sleep Tight, read by Melody Grove & Andrew Wincott (Whole Story Audiobooks)

– Lee Child for Make Me, read by Jeff Harding (Random House Audiobooks)

– Harlan Coben for The Stranger, read by Eric Meyers (Orion Publishing Group)

– Robert Galbraith for Career of Evil, read by Robert Glenister (Hachette Audio UK)

– Paula Hawkins for The Girl on the Train, read by Clare Corbett, India Fisher & Louise Brealey (Random House Audiobooks)

– Stephen King for Finders Keepers, read by Will Patton (Hodder & Stoughton)

– David Lagercrantz for The Girl in the Spider’s Web, translated by George Goulding and read by Saul Reichlin (Quercus)

– Clare Mackintosh for I Let You Go, read by David Thorpe & Julia Barrie (Hachette Audio)

– Ian Rankin for Even Dogs in the Wild, read by James Macpherson (Orion Publishing Group)


– Linwood Barclay for Broken Promise (Orion Publishing Group)

– Michael Connelly for The Crossing (Orion Publishing Group)

– Judith Flanders for A Bed of Scorpions (Allison & Busby)

– Suzette A. Hill for A Southwold Mystery (Allison & Busby)

– Laurie R. King for Dreaming Spies (Allison & Busby)

– Jax Miller for Freedom’s Child (HarperCollins)

– Denise Mina for Blood, Salt, Water (Orion Publishing Group)

– Andrew Taylor for The Silent Boy (HarperCollins)

Last Laugh Award:

– Sascha Arango for The Truth and Other Lies (Simon & Schuster)

– Alan Bradley for As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Orion Publishing Group)

– Simon Brett for Mrs Pargeter’s Principle (Severn House Publishing)

– Christopher Fowler for Bryant & May and the Burning Man (Transworld)

– Elly Griffiths for Smoke and Mirrors (Quercus)

– Malcolm Pryce for The Case of the ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste (Bloomsbury)

– Mike Ripley for Mr Campion’s Fox (Severn House Publishing)

– Jason Starr for Savage Lane (No Exit Press)

HRF Keating Award:

– David Stuart Davies & Barry Forshaw for The Sherlock Holmes Book (Dorling Kindersley)

– Martin Edwards for The Golden Age of Murder (HarperCollins)

– Fergus Fleming for The Man With the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters (Bloomsbury)

– Barry Forshaw for Crime Uncovered: Detective (Intellect)

– Julius Green for Curtains Up: Agatha Christie – A Life in Theatre (HarperCollins)

– Maysam Hasam Jaber for Criminal Femmes Fatales in American Hardboiled Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan)

– Fiona Peters & Rebecca Stewart for Crime Uncovered: Anti-hero (Intellect)

– Adam Sisman for John le Carré: The Biography (Bloomsbury)

Petrona Award:

– Karin Fossum for The Drowned Boy, translated by Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)

– Kati Hiekkapelto for The Defenceless, translated by David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

– Jørn Lier Horst for The Caveman, translated by Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)

– David Lagercrantz for The Girl in the Spider’s Web, translated by George Goulding (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

– Hans Olav Lahlum for Satellite People, translated by Kari Dickson (Mantle/Pan Macmillan; Norway)

– Antti Tuomainen for Dark As My Heart, translated by Lola Rogers (Harvill Secker; Finland)

My book, James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction, was on the longlist for the HRF Keating award. Alas, it never made the transition from longlist to shortlist but I was nevertheless thrilled to see it listed alongside works by distinguished authors such as Martin Edwards, Adam Sisman and Barry Forshaw. Serial Crime Fiction: Dying for More, edited by Jean Anderson, Carolina Miranda and Barbara Pezzotti, to which I contributed a chapter, was also up for the Keating award but, again, never made it to the shortlist. Still, as Orson Welles use to say “Sour grapes are not my dish.”

Congratulations and good luck to all the nominees.

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley: Reissued and Reviewed

April 14, 2016

The 1978 publication of The Last Good Kiss was a turning point not only in the career of its author James Crumley but also in the crime genre itself. I first read about the exploits of Crumley’s endearingly amoral private detective C.W. Sughrue about five years ago, and it was wonderful to revisit the character to review the novel for Shotsmag. Funnily enough, I was reading the novel around the same time I interviewed the novelist Craig McDonald, and he discussed at length the influence Crumley had on his writing. Here’s a snippet from my review:

Anyone who has ever attempted to write fiction will know how important– and agonisingly difficult—your opening line is to write. You can rewrite and rephrase the same sentence again and again in the elusive hope it will read well enough to grab the attention of agents and editors. James Crumley claimed the opening paragraph of The Last Good Kiss (1978) took him two months to write compared to the relatively short twelve months for the rest of the novel.

Like many a classic opening line, it seems as effortlessly pleasurable as the first whiskey of the evening, or at least that’s how Crumley might have put it:

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out a fine spring afternoon.

You can read the full review here.

My copy of The Last Good Kiss arrived with a much welcome gift. If only all review copies came with such goodies…


The Crime Museum

April 7, 2016

The Crime Museum is a museum within a museum. Established in the mid-1870s by serving police officers to train recruits, the Crime Museum has been opened to the public for the first time at an exhibition hosted by the Museum of London. With its Brutalist architecture, the Museum of London looks like the perfect setting for many a crime, no wonder Ian Fleming named a Bond villain after one of the key proponents of Brutalism. Putting the building’s lack of aesthetic appeal aside, as a museum it’s always worth a visit and this latest exhibition has proved a real draw with the opening hours having been extended till midnight in order to cope with demand. This says a great deal about the public’s fascination with crime. I waded through a sizeable crowd to see guns, knives and poisons that had actually been used as murder weapons. Death masks of executed murderers lined the shelves and the nooses that had broken their neck hung from the ceiling. I doubt anyone who attended would have found this a pleasurable experience in the traditional sense, and this poses a dilemma for the curators. A lot of visible work had been put into the ethical dimension of the exhibition. None of the murder cases that are documented took place after 1975 in order to minimise the possibility of causing distress to the surviving family members of the victims. Although there were briefer references to more recent terrorist attacks by the IRA and radical Islamist cells. Aside from the occasional references to espionage, terrorism and organised crime, the key focus of this exhibition was murder. Reading about the grisly crimes of John Christie or John George Haigh (the Acid Bath Murderer), I was left certain that these monsters deserved their appointment with the hangman. But the curators take an even-handed approach. Other displays, which highlighted the miscarriages of justice, or simply how the law was applied in less enlightened times, which led to the executions of Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and Edith Thompson brought back my more liberal, anti-death penalty instincts.

Police ingenuity is a recurrent and welcome theme here. Visitors get a glimpse of how of fingerprinting aided investigators in murder cases, how wireless telegraphy played a role in the capture of Dr Crippen, and more recently, how the Flying Squad foiled the Millennium Dome diamond heist. However, documents relating to the Jack the Ripper murders are a grim reminder that the police cannot solve every case.

Browsing through the museum shop afterwards, I came across many books and DVD’s that were either factual or fictional accounts of the crimes that were documented in the exhibition. Dance with a Stranger (1985), The Krays (1990), 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Let Him Have It (1991) were among a number of titles that featured prominently. I also spotted multiple copies of PD James’ wonderful novel The Murder Room (2003). In the novel, a murder takes place at the fictional Dupayne museum located on Hampstead Heath. The title refers to a room dedicated to real-life murders. How typically ghoulish of James to have her fictional murder committed there. In the novel, world weary policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh surveys the artefacts of the murder room and, upon being reminded of the Thompson-Bywaters case, is overcome with the same gloomy resignation about the nature of man that I felt after leaving the Crime Museum:

Dalgliesh was silent. Ever since, as an eleven-year-old, he had read of that distraught and drugged woman being half-dragged to her execution, the case had lain at the back of memory, heavy as a coiled snake. Poor dull Percy Thompson had not deserved to die, but did anyone deserve what his widow had suffered during those last days in the condemned cell when she finally realised that there was a real world outside even more dangerous than her fantasies and that there were men in it who, on a precise day at a precise hour, would take her out and judicially break her neck? Even as a boy the case had confirmed him as an abolitionist; had it, he wondered, exerted a subtler and more persuasive influence, the conviction, never spoken but increasingly rooted in his comprehension, that strong passions had to be subject to the will, that a completely self-absorbed love could be dangerous and the price too high to pay? Wasn’t that what he had been taught as a young recruit to the CID by the older experienced sergeant now long retired? ‘All the motives for murder are covered by four Ls: Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. They’ll tell you, laddie, that the most dangerous is loathing. Don’t you believe it. The most dangerous is love.’

Fans of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction will recognise the Thompson-Bywaters case as the inspiration for A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934), and any fan of crime fiction will witness in this exhibition real-life cases that are more disturbing than anything that can be rendered in fiction.

If you’re planning to visit the Crime Museum you must hurry. The exhibition closes on April 1o.


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