Getting Away with Murder

 

Spies at the Seaside

In all the spy fiction I have read, I cannot recall a tense interrogation scene where the interrogated and the interrogator were both sitting in deckchairs before a live audience, but such a scene was played out last month at the Slaughter in Southwold crime writing festival on the beautiful Suffolk coast. Actually, it was anything but a tense encounter, though it did involve a spy and because the venue was a seaside one, deckchairs were provided.

It gave me the chance to renew my acquaintance with the former head of MI5, now bestselling author Stella Rimington and Stella hid her disappointment well, as she had been scheduled to be interviewed by that debonair man-about-town Peter Guttridge. Being something of an international man of mystery, Peter was called away unexpectedly and so Dame Stella was forced to put up with an inferior substitute: me.

The Southwold Arts Centre was packed to the rafters and I doubt that a mole (a real one) could have tunnelled in to hear Stella reflect on her career as one of the first female MI5 officers, the first female Director General and the first Director General to be publicly named whilst in post. We also managed to cover the character of her fictional spy Liz Carlyle and she allowed me to reveal a little of her next adventure, The Moscow Sleepers, which is published by Bloomsbury in September, which, through my own network of agents, I have been privileged to have had a sneak preview.

The Mean Streets of Academe

An intense three-day conference, Captivating Criminality, organised by the International Crime Fiction Association (no, me neither) has just finished at Bath Spa University, having attracted speakers from universities in America, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Germany, Croatia, India, Italy, Sweden and several places in the UK where I did not know there were universities.

Unlike most crime fiction conventions, or at least the ones I have attended over the last thirty years, the success of this one is unlikely to be measured in bar sales, as the packed programme seemed to leave little down time for socialising.

Topics covered included: Transcultural Transformations and Luminality; Courting corpses – the sexualisation of the female body post-mortem; Post-mortem dressage in the roles of forensic pathologist; Love as culturally constructed emotion and the queering of male corporeality in Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series; Examining the artistic unity of psychogeography and detection in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night; and a long awaited seminar on The Game of Gazes – idiographic assessment of the criminal in Liviu Rebreanu’s ‘Ciulendra’ for those who feared the Romanian author’s 1927 psychological novel had been forgotten. (And yes, I had to look that up.)

I have a sneaking suspicion that people in academia may be taking this crime-writing lark far too seriously.

Legal Notices

For legal reasons I have not seen Smoke and Ashes the new novel by that charming rising man of crime fiction Abir Mukherjee, nor the new wartime thriller Estocada by Graham Hurley, nor the latest spy thriller from Charles Cumming, The Man Between. I was looking forward to all three and hear they are rather good.

Cruising for a Bruising

Having joined, last year, a radical environmentalist commando dedicated to curtailing the visits of giant cruise ships to Venice (and only a minor heart attack prevented me from actual boarding one swinging on a rope, cutlass between teeth), I was initially sceptically about Mark McCrum’s new novel Cruising to Murder from Severn House.

But McCrum’s novel does not mention Venice and the cruise involved is one down the west coast of Africa, with various ‘adventures’ ashore all tailored to the requirements of the ‘certain demographic’ who go on cruises. Being a very traditional murder mystery, there are of course on-ship murders but fortunately the mixed-race crime writer Francis Meadowes is on board to help solve them.

Meadowes is not there as a paying passenger, but rather a guest lecturer to entertain the passengers – usually after dinner when they are least restless – on the intricacies of crime writing. This is in no way a far-fetched scenario. I can think of four well-known crime writers who have enjoyed first class cabins and dinner at the captain’s table in exchange for a few hours of public speaking to break the monotony of a long sea voyage.

There was even a famous American crime writer on board the Titanic – Jacques Futrelle (1875 – you guessed it, 15th April 1912) – but whether he gave any lectures on his craft I do not know. I suspect he had other things on his mind.

Mark McCrum’s Cruising to Murder is not to be confused with Dawn Brookes’ A Cruise to Murder published at almost the same time by Oakwood Publishing.

This I believe to be a traditional mystery set on board a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, but the biggest mystery seems to be finding details of the publisher. I have discovered an ‘Oakwood Publishing’ in Gurugram in India and one in Dayton, Ohio but I suspect the relevant one is based nearer to Derby, where the author was one of the organisers of the first Oakwood Literature (sic) Festival in May this year.

Safe Pair of Hands

If you prefer your traditional ‘cosy’ mysteries set closer to home – in the heart of the Cotswolds, say – then you could not be in a safer pair of (blood-stained) hands than those of Ann Granger.

Ann’s 15-book series of Cotswolds-set mysteries featuring the popular sleuthing duo of Meredith Mitchell and policeman Alan Markby ended in 2004, amidst much angry howling from fans only silenced by the author creating new characters, most recently the policing duo of Superintendent Ian Carter and Inspector Jess Campbell.

The Campbell and Carter series, which began in 2009, have gained their own loyal following but Ann Granger will be pleasing fans old and new with their latest outing, An Unfinished Murder

which is published by Headline this month, when Mitchell and Markby come out of retirement to help Campbell and Carter crack a cold case.

For fans this sounds not so much like a cold case as a case of having one’s cake and eating it, and they will love it.

Zero Tolerance

If you had no idea what ARPANET stands for, or INDECT, XKEYSCORE or TEMPORA, or have never used predictive analytics, gamification or The Onion Router, then don’t worry. They are all explained in Zero by Marc Elsberg, published this month by Doubleday.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have what my psychiatrist calls a ‘hate/hate relationship’ with modern technology, so I approached Zero with some trepidation as it is set in the world of hidden cameras, ‘data glasses’(!), smart phones and drones and concerns the world’s most wanted internet activist ( a cyber terrorist or a freedom fighter depending on your point of view) and the invasive social media site Freemee, which is almost certainly run by an evil ‘data oligarch’.    

If you are a fan of Charlie Brooker’s Netflix series Black Mirror, this is definitely the book for you, though of course you would read it on some sort of electronic device (which would in turn be monitored by the aforementioned data oligarchs). Even I understood most of it partly thanks to the excellent, fluid translation from the German (the author Marc Elsberg is Austrian) by Simon Pare.

Books of the Month

And there are quite a lot this month, with all possible tastes catered for.

British readers probably associate the name Ace Atkins as the ‘continuation author’ for the Spenser novels originally created by the late Robert B. Parker, but I, being longer in the tooth than the average reader, remember being enthusiastically recommended his 1998 debut Crossroad Blues by the staff of Murder One in the Charing Cross Road.

Abandoning Spenser’s wise-cracking Boston for rural Mississippi noir, Atkins’ new novel The Sinners, published by Corsair, returns to his own series hero Quinn Colson, an ex-US Ranger turned sheriff and his far from peaceful patch of Tibbehah County. The setting may be the modern South buy the violence and law enforcement is straight out of the old West where the good guys have to be just as tough as the bad.

I have been looking forward to Domenic Stansberry’s The White Devil since I heard good things about it from my colonial chums after it was first published in the USA in 2016. Now published as a paperback original by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, I have the chance to sample this story, set initially in Rome, of the mysterious ‘Vittoria’ and the lethal havoc wrecked around her and her lovers.

Any similarities to John Webster’s 1612 revenge tragedy of the same name, based on the stabbing of Italian noblewoman Vittoria Accoramboni in Padua in 1585, and analogies to more recent murder cases in Italy (featuring an American female) are, I am assured, absolutely intentional.

To me, Gollancz as a publisher was always a mark of quality, often experimental crime fiction, especially in the imprint’s trademark yellow jackets. It was courtesy of Gollancz hardbacks that I first discovered authors such as Anthony Price, Lionel Davidson, Peter Van Greenaway, Russell James, Michael Innes, Robert Player and Charles Willeford. Gollancz was, of course, equally famous for its science fiction list, something it has concentrated on almost exclusively in recent years.

Now it seems to have gone into genre-bending in a big way with Summerland by Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi. The Summerland of the title is the name for a metropolis of the recently deceased, the afterlife having been discovered and is, to quote Gandalf, only the beginning of things. As this is 1938 (still with me?), the still vibrant British Empire wants to expand into the afterlife, but so to do the Soviet Russians. And so ‘the great game’ is played out on the supernatural plane with, as this is the decade of the Cambridge spies, the suspicion that Soviet moles are active in British Intelligence.

For SIS agent Rachel White, the problem is how do you hunt down a mole who is already dead? It is good to see that Gollancz have lost none of their flair for experimentation.

Some while ago now that most perceptive of American reviewers of crime fiction, Sarah Weinman, commented wearily on the craze for ‘domestic noir’ where (and I may be paraphrasing here) female characters are often either ‘bat-shit crazy or TSL (Too Stupid to Live)’. Further traits of the burgeoning sub-genre (sometimes disparagingly known as chick noir) seem to be the unreliable narrator or narrators, and having at least one character suffering from a medical condition such as amnesia, insomnia or epilepsy which can lead to unexpected behaviour or a dependence on prescription drugs.

Most of the above, at first sight, could apply to The Dead Ex by Jane Corry, now out from Penguin. The plot has more twists than an orgy of rattlesnakes and whilst some red herrings can be seen coming, others are introduced through misdirection and the main narrator being economical with the truth. A fair suspension of disbelief is required at times, especially over the time-frame of the plot and the role of the ‘dead ex (-husband)’ but there is no denying that the book is ridiculously readable and some of the flashback scenes involving a young girl, daughter of a drug-dealing mum, being placed in an unfeeling and cruel ‘care’ system are powerful and disturbing.

Paul Doherty, like me, was born on the right side of the Pennines so he will know full well that it will be a cold day in Hell before I wear a red rose in my lapel.

So it was some trepidation that I approached his latest historical mystery Dark Queen Rising, published by Crème de la Crime, which takes as its core plot a conspiracy against Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor (who was to depose the much misunderstood Richard III), and a key figure in the Wars of the Roses.

As usual, Paul Doherty makes history come alive and anyone longing for the return of Game of Thrones can get their fix of dynastic violence and back-stabbing right here. The novel may be lacking in dragons, but some of the knife-wielding monks are just as terrifying.

 

 

 

The Widows Maker

About 25 years ago I spent a fascinating evening at some publishing party or other, chatting to Lynda La Plante and having a jolly good mutual moan about the perils of writing for television. I was never quite sure why Lynda was complaining as she was rather good at it as she had recently proved by the tremendous success of Prime Suspect.

Before then, she had made the transition from actress to scriptwriter with Widows, her outstanding debut crime series which was remade for American television in 2002 and now it is being remade again for the cinema, which makes the reissue of the book by Zaffre really rather timely.

The film version is due for release in October and is certain to cause a stir as it is directed by Steve McQueen who co-wrote the script with Gillian Flynn. Indeed, it is already being mentioned as a contender in the 2019 Oscars.

Lynda has not rested on her laurels and has written and produced a plethora of hit television programmes and bestselling novels, including a new one, Murder Mile, which will be published by Bonnier Zaffre in August and is another Prime Suspect ‘prequel’ featuring a young Jane Tennison.

Crimefest
 Wash-up

After board or committee meetings, both in industry and in government, permanent staff or civil servants get together for a ‘wash-up’ session to see what action should follow the decisions taken by the meeting. I long ago adopted the same principle when it came to crime fiction conventions; whenever I meet a writer whose work I did not know, I make an effort to seek out an example as soon as I can. Following this year’s Crimefest in May, I have sought out two authors who were new to me – and have not been disappointed, as both have introduced me to impressive detective duo partnerships.

Caro Ramsay is well-known in Scottish crime writing circles for her Glasgow-set series featuring DCI Colin Anderson and DI Freddie Costello. Their tenth outing is The Sideman, published by Severn House, and Costello appears to have gone slightly rogue, hunting down a man suspected of killing his wife and child despite having a cast-iron alibi. Murder, a flourishing trade in drugs and the wild coast of Wester Ross (the real one, not the Game of Thrones one) all play their part in a tense climax – a cliff-hanger, quite literally. And if you want to know what the Sideman of the title does, it’s not pleasant.

Robert Scragg, with whom I shared a medicinal lemonade or two at Crimefest, hails from the north-east but has chosen to set his debut crime novel, What Falls Between the Cracks, now out from Allison & Busby, in London and the bad lands of Deptford. The plot contains a nationwide criminal conspiracy and bent coppers and is kicked off by a gruesome find from the 1980s. Rob Scragg’s detective duo – DI Jake Porter and his slightly under-used DS Nick Styles – successfully navigate their first complex case and survive a riverside shoot-out and could be a pairing well worth spending time with.

  

The book deserves better than the rather clichéd cover which shows the ubiquitous ‘girl running/walking away’ which was one of my major bugbears last year.

Unlucky for Some

The use of numbers in book titles is not unusual and has in the past given birth to at least one publishing legend, when Joseph Heller changed the working title of his novel Catch 18 to Catch 22 as publication was going to clash with Leon Uris’ Warsaw Uprising novel Mila 18.

Today, authors and publishers seem more relaxed – or maybe they just don’t notice these things – as two new thrillers, both from Orion, lay claim to the number 13.

Sleeper 13 by Rob Sinclair is an action-packed thriller set in the tormented Middle East and particularly the chaos of modern Syria, and a pan-European threat from militant extremists. On the eve of a major terrorist attack, one of the highly-trained insurgents turns the tables and begins to hunt down those who trained him. (There’s a clue in the title.)

Steve Cavanagh is a Belfast-born lawyer who has seen the light and turned to crime fiction set in America. Thirteen is ostensibly a courtroom drama with a Hollywood star on trial for the murder of his glamorous wife and such a high profile trial naturally demands the services of Cavanagh’s con artist-turned-defence-lawyer (cynics might ask what the difference is) Eddie Flynn for the defence. But even the streetwise Flynn might be up against it if the ‘thirteenth’ member of the jury might the real killer.

Lady in the Lakes

Zoë Sharp, with her Charlie Fox series, has shown that writing tough, action-packed thrillers is no longer exclusively a boys’ club. With her stand-alone novels she has cemented her reputation for no-nonsense stories with strong female protagonists and in her latest has shown that the peaceful tourist-magnet that is the English Lake District can be as dangerous as a war zone.

Dancing on the Grave, now out from Zace, features Crime Scene Investigator Grace McColl and a lonely teenager girl who might be rather dangerous, and if you are planning a trip to the Lake District this summer, beware of snipers.

Cambridge Connections

For legal reasons I missed the fascinating historical mystery The Great Darkness by Jim Kelly when it was published by Allison & Busby back in February. The good news, however, is that it is due in paperback in August and is a must-read for anyone who fancies their traditional police procedural melded with an inventive espionage thriller set in the opening days of World War II.

The title refers to the first general blackout of the war during which some very suspicious goings-on take place in Cambridge, a noted centre of scientific research geared to the war effort as well as numerous communist party cells (in Cambridge – who knew?) and some grisly deaths follow including one, it seems, where the murder weapon is a barrage balloon.

All this and more confronts Kelly’s police detective inspector Eden Brooke, a veteran of WWI who, following capture and torture by the Turks in the Palestine campaign, has a particular aversion to bright sunlight and an affinity with other ‘nightcrawlers’ who go about their business after dark.

Anyone who knows Jim Kelly’s work, usually set in the East Anglian Fens, knows that he can do policemen very well, not surprisingly as he is the son of a Scotland Yard detective. The Great Darkness proves he can do historical settings equally well and also the city of Cambridge, which is where I have to declare an interest – well, I don’t have to but I’m going to.

With its underlying theme of darkness and night-time activity, it is not surprising that ‘Nightclimbers’ play a significant part in the story. These were dare-devil students who climbed and jumped over the roof tops of the colleges at night and plotted the most poplar (and dangerous) routes on the same principle as the ‘Marauders’ Map’ in Harry Potter. The definitive work on the subject is The Night Climbers of Cambridge, published in 1937 written anonymously by ‘Whipplesnaith’ who was later revealed to be one Noel Symington, whose son Ian, a generation later, was a good chum of mine at university and who now lives in East Anglia, not a million miles away from author Jim Kelly.

A further coincidence involves the stately mansion of Madingley Hall, often mistaken for Ripster Hall, just outside Cambridge, which features in the book. Now the home of the university’s Institute of Continuing Education, Madingley Hall was the venue, a few years back, where I taught a residential course in creative crime writing at which Jim Kelly was my invited guest speaker.

With so much seeming familiar, it is no wonder I enjoyed The Great Darkness, which surely marks the start of an interesting a successful series. If I have a qualm (as I usually do) it has nothing to do with the quality of the book, it is just that the period in which it is set – specifically October 1939 – is referred to as ‘the Phoney War’. Now somewhere I have read, though I cannot remember where, that the term ‘Phoney War’ was an Americanism and first came into common parlance in 1941 or 1942. Prior to that, British civilians referred to the period (up to the Spring of 1940) as ‘the Bore War’ which sounds rather classy but clearly has not had the same popular appeal.

Beating Around the Bush Again

For those who simply cannot get enough of the work of Christopher Bush (1885-1973) and his fictional detective Ludovic Travers, then the good news is that Dean Street Press are republishing a further ten titles with the promise that all 63 Bush novels will eventually be back in print.

This particular tranche of Bush novels were written during the years of World War II and all are titled The Case of…

Chronologically they are: The Flying Donkey (1939), The Climbing Rat (1940), The Murdered Major (1941), The Kidnapped Colonel (1942), The FightingSoldier (1942), The Magic Mirror (1943), The Running Mouse (1944), The Platinum Blonde (1944), The Corporal’s Leave (1945) and The Missing Men (1946).

Dead Letter Drop

To thank him for all his help an encouragement in recent years, I sent one of my early novels by special courier to Randall Masteller, the American doyen of spy fiction and the man behind the invaluable website Spy Guys and Gals.

Randall was ambushed by one of my most trusted sleeper agents in North Carolina, who surprised him at his workplace dressed uncannily like the rather stylish American character pictured on the cover of Angels in Arms.

I think my agent achieved totally surprise, but to give any more details of her mission would be to reveal valuable tradecraft and probably provoke the interest of Homeland Security.

 

Pip! Pip!

The Ripster



Read more articles by Mike Ripley



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