Getting Away with Murder

 

Seriously, for a Moment

I finished my review of Philip Kerr’s new novel on a Friday evening. On Saturday morning I was horrified to receive an email from Ian Rankin sharing the awful news that Phil had died at the unreasonably young age of 62.

I first met Philip in 1990 when, in an attempt to promote ourselves as the new kids on the block, we produced a double-sided bookmark which we pressed on bemused London bookshops.

In 1992, although few people believe this, Philip and I, plus Michael Dibdin, Mike Phillips and Mark Timlin, of the ad hoc ‘Fresh Blood’ group were hired as models by GQ Magazine for a feature on what the trendy young crime writer (pretending to be a private eye) was wearing that year.

Philip went on to have a highly successful career with stand-alone thrillers and children’s fiction before returning to Bernie Gunther, undoubtedly his greatest creation.

When he won the Ellis Peters Award in 2009, it was after being short-listed for three years in a row. Accepting the award, Phil gave the speech he had prepared in anticipation three years before, his 2006 observations on publishing being even more poignant (and funny) because by 2009 they had come true.       

Frantic for some good news to leaven the bad, I am (selfishly) delighted that Phil had completed another Bernie Gunther book before he died and Metropolis will be published posthumously next year.

In a fond but humble tribute last week, when I met for lunch with Canadian reviewer and book collector Steele Curry on one of his too-rare visits to London, along with thriller writers David Brierley and Andrew Williams, the four us drank a toast to Philip and the pleasure he, and Bernie Gunther, had given us over the years.

I had already reviewed Greeks Bearing Gifts as one of my books of the month before I heard of Philip’s death and with only minor tweaking, it follows just as I wrote it.





                     

Special (Agent) Offer

In partnership with Shots  eZine, I am delighted to announce a free App which will appeal to all lovers of classic British thrillers from the years 1953-1975 or thereabouts (roughly Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed). The App marks membership of a new readers’ club and comes with the benefit of offers and discounts at well-known shops, in bookstores and free cocktails at an exclusive London club. [Terms and Conditions apply].

The Kiss Kiss Bang Bangers club aims to promote interest in Great British thrillers which are in danger of being forgotten. Members will be able to earn points by recommending their favourite thrillers and authors, which will enable them to enjoy numerous benefits in retail outlets on production of their Bangers membership card. Exclusively themed overseas travel opportunities will also be available to members, including ten days on a nuclear submarine to the North Pole (port side cabins carry a supplement) and the ‘flight of a lifetime’ in a vintage Dakota DC3 over the Andes from Ecuador to Bolivia ‘in the wake of the condor’ (minimum six days depending on speed of response from the United Nations).

To claim your free membership of the Kiss Kiss Bang Bangers, simply email Shots at shotseditor@yahoo.co.uk with ‘Bangers’ in the subject line and the name of your favourite British thriller or author from the boom time of Bond, Bagley, Quiller, Deighton and Dolly Dolly spies; a time when eagles dared and jackals had their day.

 

Terms and Conditions

I have absolutely no idea what an ‘App’ is.  Points don’t necessarily mean prizes. In this case, never. Vouchers offering discounts on selected grocery items can be redeemed at the Waitrose in Lerwick after 10 p.m. on any 31st December. Discounts on books will be available at the Waterstones on the Isle of Lundy in the winter months only.  Free cocktails at Gerrys Club in Soho, on presentation of a Bangers membership card, can be claimed every Sunday between Matins and Evensong.  This promotion is open to anyone daft enough to believe it. Check the date.

 

The Bangers Strike

One of the first registered Kiss-Kiss-Bang-Bangers, from Australia, has already earned several reward points by recommending an author I had grievously overlooked: Frank Ross. I have now acquired and read his first novel Dead Runner, which was published in 1977, and it’s a cracker!

Told at a frantic pace, Dead Runner taps into the public fears and regular thriller tropes of the day: the Arab-Israeli conflict spreading out across Europe through terrorism, a government held to ransom, a homemade atomic device and a hijacked passenger jet at Heathrow. The hijackers demand the release of the Arab assassin of an Israeli diplomat – or the plane, Heathrow and most of London go boom – but he’s locked up in Wormwood Scrubs and the clock is ticking. British Intelligence hires a ‘Dead Runner’ – an expendable agent – to arrange the assassin’s escape, which he does but the two find themselves on the run from just about everyone; and that (nuclear) clock is still ticking.

There is also a wry piece of advice given to the Home Secretary who enquires as to whether the atomic device has actually been constructed or stolen from an official facility: For years people have been speculating on how it could be done. Hijack, straightforward purchase, it’s kept a whole battalion of novelists in business. But that’s what it is. Pure fiction. Nuclear security has been made practically watertight since the end of the Sixties. That was written in 1977. I think few of the current battalion of thriller writers would share Frank Ross’ optimism.                       

When first published, Len Deighton called it ‘An atomic Bond’ and Alistair MacLean labelled it ‘A masterpiece in sustained pyrotechnics’. Both were spot on and it’s a mystery to me how I managed to miss this book and this author. But then, the real mystery may be who is, or was, the author. Who exactly was ‘Frank Ross’?

The biographical blurb supplied in the Pan paperback edition I now proudly own, says that the author is ‘dedicated to the pursuit of contented anonymity’ and gives few real details. There is a theory that Frank Ross was the pen-name of, at least initially, a pair of co-operating writers: Colin Northway (about whom I know nothing) and Michael Ewing. I have found a reference to a Michael Ewing (1934-2009) who was for a time a journalist in Norfolk – and the section of Dead Runner which is set on the East Anglian coast in winter rings very true – who also wrote one of the ‘Frank Ross’ thrillers solo (there were, I think, six titles) and at least one adventure thriller under the name Blair Stuart.

Whoever he/they was or were ‘Frank Ross’, my discovery has been a pleasure and a successful opening shot for the Bangers initiative. I will keep an eye out for other Frank Ross titles and have already snapped up Sleeping Dogs, a Cold War thriller about a KGB sleeper cell, planted in Boston in 1958, is activated twenty years later.              

In Cold Blood?

Real historical and literary figures have both been used to good effect as detectives in crime fiction, from Peter Lovesey’s ‘Bertie’ Prince of Wales to Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey, for example. A new detective pairing in a novel from Stark House Press in America, provides two, if not three, such protagonists.

           

         

Damon Runyon’s Boys by Michael Scott Cain is a period mystery set in late 1940s New York, which not only invokes Runyon but pairs, as would-be detectives, the legendary American broadcaster Walter Winchell and the undefinable Truman Capote.

How would Truman Capote have felt about being reincarnated as a fictional detective? I think he would have loved it.

           

Bloggers Before their Time

I mentioned last time the exhibition honouring thriller writer Desmond Bagley being organised as part of the Guernsey Literary Festival and the driving force behind it, Phil Eastwood who runs the ‘Bagley Brief’ website.  Now Phil tells me that a feature written by Desmond Bagley for the British Tourist Authority magazine In Britain in 1980, in praise of his adopted island home has been revived and is reprinted on the official ‘Visit Guernsey’ website at https://www.visitguernsey.com/blog/little-peace-britain.

The author is credited as the website’s ‘Guest Blogger’ and I suspect Bagley would have been amused at the thought of becoming a ‘blogger’ for the first time, thirty-five years after his death.

French Leave

The late Sebastien Japrisot (1931-2003) was a scriptwriter, novelist and film director who was often called ‘the French Graham Greene’. He was responsible for one of my favourite titles (no, not The Story of O, though he did write the script for the 1975 film), his crime novel The Lady in the Car with Glasses and the Gun.

I was not, until now, familiar with his novel of suspense and revenge set in Provence, One Deadly Summer, which was first published in English in 1980 but is now brought to us in a fresh translation by Gallic Books.

My advisor on all things French, if you’ll pardon the double-entendre, tells me that she found that this intense tale of lust and betrayal has not dated in the slightest. That is something, sadly, she rarely says about me.

*

Once again for legal reasons, I have not seen that other notable crime novel translated from the French - Keeper, published by Orenda Books. Indeed, sad to say, I have never seen anything published by Orenda.                     







                                               

Which is a pity, as Keeper sounds very interesting, offering a split narrative between modern crimes and Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel. The author, Johana Gustawsson is a French journalist married to a Swede, living in London and I discover that the book was translated (as I believe was Johana’s first novel Block 46) by my old co-editing chum Maxim Jakubowski.            

Those Golden Age Dames

The accepted wisdom is that the ‘Golden Age’ of the English detective novel (the 1920s and 30s) was dominated by four ‘Queens of Crime’: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.

Of those ‘Big Four’ I confess it is Ngaio Marsh whose backlist I have least visited, though when I have I have been greatly impressed with the way she described actors and theatrical folk, in all their pomposity and insecurity. This should not be surprising as Dame Ngaio’s real passion was the theatre and almost single-handed she revived interest in live theatre in her native New Zealand.

During WWII, Dame Ngaio had her detective hero Roderick Alleyn solving murders and countering espionage in New Zealand and some time (I am guessing here) after she had completed Colour Scheme in 1943, she began a new novel but abandoned it after three chapters. Using those chapters and Dame Ngaio’s notes, the novel Money in the Morgue (Collins Crime Club) has now been completed by Stella Duffy, and a more appropriate ‘completist’ author could hardly have been wished for.

Stella Duffy is not only an accomplished crime writer and an experienced theatrical producer, actor and playwright (she was awarded the O.B.E. for services to the arts), but also spent her childhood in New Zealand. Thus she is eminently qualified, not only to take on Ngaio Marsh’s mantle, but to help us non-Maori speakers with the pronunciation of place names and to remind us that the ‘g’ in Ngaio is silent. (I must tell Stella, that in West Yorkshire when I and other callow youths were swapping paperback detective stories, it wasn’t; but then we simply didn’t know any better.)                                                           

After a turbulent year (1926) to say the least, when she was something of a gone girl, that most promising of crime writers Agatha Christie sets sail on a liner bound for the Canary Islands. This is not R & R though; there is a mission for the British Secret Service involved, but even before she reaches Tenerife, Agatha witnesses a woman (a mentally unstable heiress, naturally) throw herself overboard.

Can Agatha use her writing talent and plotting skills to solve the mystery? Almost certainly, and to find out how, consult A Different Kind of Evil by Andrew Wilson, published at the end of the month by Simon & Schuster. It is the second ‘case’ for Agatha as detective by Andrew Wilson, who is, coincidentally, a biographer of Patricia Highsmith.

Now the talented Miss Highsmith, there’s a crime writer I’d like to see as a fictional detective to lead us down those unlit mean streets.

Bookmarks I Have Known

I have always regarded myself as something of a conservative when it comes to bookmarks, preferring to use proper bookmarks as produced by publishers and bookstores. One day I am sure my collection will be much argued over by social historians, but I am aware that other readers tend to use what first comes to hand. Often, they leave these intriguing mementos for others, such as myself, when the book they were reading passes into the second-hand market and they can tell a story as well as the one in the book they marked.        

One recent find was a restaurant receipt from October 1978 for a no-doubt very pleasant lunch at Le Roi d’Ys in Rouen. I am sure there must be an interesting story behind that rather abstemious lunch (twice as much spent on Perrier as on wine) but one would have to imagine it as the restaurant, sad to say, is now a Japanese sushi bar. The bill, for 75 francs 20 centimes would at the time have been in the region of £8.80 in British currency.

A more recent find, in an American paperback, was a pristine Bulgarian 100 Lev banknote. Bulgaria, I am told, is not yet a member of the Eurozone and the note could therefore be worth £44.95 in sterling, or an estimated £4.95 after Brexit.

































































































































































































































































           

 

Books of the Month

I have been a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther thrillers for almost thirty years and over the years have become incredibly jealous of a series where the books get longer, more expansive and more addictive. The quality of Philip’s latest is as high as ever.

Greeks Bearing Gifts, out this month from Quercus, sees Bernie – having made it alive to 1957 under yet another assumed identity – working among the dead as a mortuary attendant in Munich. Quiet and steady work, you’d think, but you’d be wrong. Bernie is soon recognised by a former fellow policeman from pre-Hitler days now attempting to scam the East German intelligence service.  Reluctantly Bernie gets involved and after a nifty bit of treble-crossing finds himself a seemingly safer job as an insurance assessor. But Bernie’s safety is the one thing not insured when he is sent to Athens on an investigation which takes him back into the dark memory of the war years.

As usual, Kerr’s research is immaculate and effortlessly presented. (I did not know, for instance, that Nazi concentration camps had insurance cover against fire, theft and ‘other risks’ but if Bernie Gunter tells me it was so, then I am willing to believe it.) The writing is as fluent as ever, with Bernie’s voice coming over in classic hard-boiled, cynical tones. A shady policeman’s cigar smells like a bonfire in a plague pit and at one point, he ruminates that It probably took a German to invent the idea of an archduke.

Greeks Bearing Gifts is a totally satisfying cocktail of plot, character and modern European history, raising more than a few moral conundrums seasoned with some dry (and prophetic) comments about the European Economic Community and the economic efficiency of Greece

*

As a long-term fan of Marcus Didius Falco, Lindsey Davis’ Roman private eye, I admit to coming around to the exploits of his daughter and fictional successor Flavia Alba rather slowly. However, if I ever had any doubts, Pandora’s Boy published by Hodder, dispels them.

With a missing husband – a husband struck by lightning during their wedding (not a good start) – and short of funds, Flavia takes on a case on behalf of missing hubby’s first wife. The case involves a dead teenage girl, possibly poisoned by a love potion, and smacks of witchcraft. It also takes Flavia out of her normal hunting ground on the Aventine to the posher, more respectable Quirinal Hill district of Rome in the year 89 AD, which saw Domitian firmly and ruthlessly entrenched as Emperor.

For those unfamiliar with the districts of Imperial Rome, I have attempted a crude sketch map to show the Aventine and the Quirinal. Today the Quirinal Palace is the home of the Italian President and seen by thousands of tourists each year trying to find the Trevi Fountain.

Back in Flavia Alba’s day the Quirinal had fewer tourists but held many dangers for an independent female private investigator, however streetwise, however resourceful. And many of the dangers and prejudices she faces are still there after two thousand years.

Pandora’s Boy sees Lindsey Davis on top form and her prose has the same sparkle and fizz as when she first introduced us to Falco (now going straight as an auctioneer) way back in 1989, which is a career longer than that of most Roman Emperors.

*

English crime writers setting their fiction abroad with foreign detectives is by no means a recent phenomenon. Roderic Jeffries launched his Inspector Alvarez series (Mallorca) in 1974; David Serafin’s Superintendent Bernal (Spain) and James Melville’s Superintendent Otani (Japan) both debuted in 1979; and Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen (Italy) arrived in 1988. Part of the appeal of such books is the examination of distinctly foreign locations, culture and attitudes through familiar, though hopefully not rose-tinted, lenses.

I freely admit that what first drew me to Peter Morfoot’s Captain Darac mysteries set in Nice, was the prospect of a goodly portion of southern French lifestyle (sun, wine, warm croissants – what’s not to like?) and the added bonus of a feast of jazz and blues lore as hero Darac, when off duty, plays guitar in the Didier Musso Quintet, a quintet which has been known to contain seven or even twelve musicians.

With Box of Bones, from Titan Books, though, Peter Morfoot has gone way beyond playing the fictional tourist card and has produced an accomplished piece of crime fiction, a policier (if you’ll pardon my French) with an ensemble cast which brings back fond memories of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe tales of ‘Mid-Yorkshire’ and John Harvey’s Nottingham of Inspector Resnick. The wine is better and cheaper in Morfoot’s Nice, but now the multi-layered plots, the credible crimes (although there’s a very clever robbery in this one) and the all-too-human characters are getting just as good.

The book should come with a warning to fans of guitar-based blues, as a Gibson guitar is sorely mis-used in this novel.  The late and much lamented B.B. King is probably turning in his grave, but despite that Paul Darac is a hero, and this is a series, well worth investing in.

*

Sending Christopher Fowler’s detective duo, that perfect odd couple, Bryant and May back to the future as it were, to solve a country house murder in 1969 doesn’t sound remotely exceptional given some of the previous antics of these denizens of the Peculiar Crimes Unit.

To be honest, a county house murder with a closed circle of suspects as in their latest adventure, Bryant & May: Hall of Mirrors, from Doubleday, belongs in the realm of the Perfectly Ordinary Crimes Unit in comparison with some of their cases, even if a body has been fed into a compost/sewage macerator…

Set to a late Sixties soundtrack, with some wonderful gags about the Swinging Sixties and not a few very astute sideswipes about present day London, this is Christopher Fowler enjoying himself and just when you think his dynamic duo of ancient detectives are completely out of their depth at a week-end country house party in Kent, well then, you’d be right. Fortunately for them (and us) one of the guests at the house party is ‘Pamela Claxon’ who is (you could have guessed) a crime writer, the author of the ‘Inspector Trench’ mysteries. In Chapter 25 she reveals some of the techniques of writing a traditional mystery novel – and her forthright opinions of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple – including the famous ‘Chekhov’s gun’ ploy. No wonder Arthur Bryant is lost in admiration.

*

 R.N.(Roger) Morris made his name with a quartet of fabulous crime novels featuring Dostoyevsky’s 19th century Russian detective Porfiry Petrovich. Recently he has switched police forces and historical period and given us Detective Inspector Silas Quinn of the Special Crimes Department of the Metropolitan Police on the eve of World War I.

In his fourth outing, The Red Hand of Fury, out now from Severn House, Roger puts his policeman hero through hell in a case where the inmates really do seem to have taken over the asylum. The lunatic asylum in question is the famous, or infamous, Colney Hatch (now Princess Park Manor just inside the M25) which seems to be the source of an epidemic of similar suicides where the victim strips naked before doing the deed, in one case by jumping in to the polar bear enclosure at London Zoo.

As always, Roger Morris shows how adept he is at filling in the fascinating detail of the period he is writing about; particularly, in this case, on the attitudes to insanity and the practice of psychiatry in 1914, when old values were about to be challenged if not destroyed. There is also a character who is a writer with an interest in aviation and space travel, the author of the novel The Blood Planet. Now I wonder who could have inspired that?

*

For legal reasons I have not had time (yet) to read Andrew Taylor’s The Fire Court (HarperCollins), the follow-up to his enthralling bestseller Ashes of London.

I will make sure I do read it this month, partly because I was enthralled by its predecessor (much of which I read in one of the first public houses to be rebuilt after the Great Fire – spoiler alert? – of 1666), and partly because I am appearing with Andrew Taylor at an event at CrimeFest  in May (and by ‘event’ I mean testosterone-fuelled slanging match) – and I like to be  forewarned and well-armed.

Pip! Pip!

The Ripster

 

Read more articles by Mike Ripley



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