Getting Away with Murder

Double Whammy

It seems that no sooner does this august column get nominated as ‘Blog of the Year’ for 2012, that it happens again, this time thanks to those discerning dissectors of American crime fiction over at The Venetian Vase (www.venetianvase.co.uk). I am still not terribly clear what this award entails or even means, or indeed what a ‘Blog’ is. I will, however, flaunt my success in stereo at every given opportunity.

 

More (and yet more) Awards

The Awards Season in crime fiction seems to last all-year round nowadays, especially in America and it seems that almost every week I hear of a new award, at least new to me.

The ‘Edgars’ presented by the Mystery Writers of America are, of course, well-established and righty coveted and the 2013 winners will be announced in May. Just as well-known are the ‘Agatha’ Awards for more traditional mysteries presented at the Malice Domestic convention, also held in May this year when two of my favourite North American writers, Margaret Maron (representing the former colony of North Carolina) and Louise Penny (representing Canada, with which we still share a head of state) once again go head-to-head in the Best Novel category, Margaret with The Buzzard Table and Louise for The Beautiful Mystery, although I do not believe either have yet been published here in Britain.

 

As both ‘Agatha’ finalists are known to me, I have to remain absolutely impartial, no matter how many bottles of Blanton’s fine bourbon or hand-pressed maple syrup I receive anonymously through the post…

I am vaguely familiar with the ‘Lefty’ Awards given at the Left coast Crime convention though I had not, until now, realised that one of the categories was the ‘Watson’ – awarded to ‘the best sidekick’ in a mystery. I have certainly heard of the ‘Barry’ awards given by that dedicated magazine Deadly Pleasures (which syndicates this very column) and annual awards dished out by the US-based Strand Magazine. I am not at all surprised to discover there is a Hammett Prize awarded by the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers, though what awards – if any – are made by the European branch (if there is one) I know not; nor in any way shocked to discover the Derringer Awards presented by the Short Mystery Fiction Society for short stories and novelettes.

 I was, however, completely unaware until recently of the ‘Lovey’ awards given at and by the Love Is Murder convention, rather than by and for members of a thespian bent.

On this side of the Atlantic, the announcement that Lee Child is to be the very worthy recipient of the Crime Writers’ Association’s Diamond Dagger this year kicks off the award season here. {Sadly, as I believe the award is no longer sponsored by Cartier, I fear Lee may have to provide his own diamonds, though I have a sneaking suspicion he would rather spend the money on a new right-back for Aston Villa.}

The CWA’s awards, in conjunction with SpecSavers and ITV3 will take place at some point (I am unsure as to exactly when) in the course of a lavish banquet no doubt which, for legal reasons, I will not be attending. Then there will be the glittering prizes distributed during Crimefest in Bristol in late May/early June (including the Last Laugh Award of blessed memory) and the more alcohol-tempered awards sponsored by Theakston’s beers at the Harrogate Crime Festival.

 

Clearly, there are simply not enough crime fiction awards to go round and so I have taken it upon myself to instigate a Richard the Third Award, which is not rhyming slang, for mystery writers who have been thought dead and forgotten (for anything up to 528 years) but have now been rediscovered and are being re-evaluated. I have not thought through details of the award ceremony itself other than that it will take place in a car park…

The Widening Webb

  

For most writers, even crime writers, one new book a year is a daunting enough schedule for an author to write and a publisher to publish well. Or so I used to think. I am now revising all my expectations and freely admit that I must have been a part-time writer having only produced 18 novels in 20 years, as I have been put to shame by the productivity of American Debra Webb, who has five new novels being published here by Headline between now and July. In fact, unless you blinked, you will have noticed that Obsession and Impulse are already out as the opening titles in ‘The faces of Evil’ series and by the time you’ve finished reading this column, the third in the series, Power, will be also, with Rage and Revenge appearing in April and July.

Now I am not suggesting that these novels have all been written in 2012, for I know the series was created in America as far back as…er… 2011, but it is still a considerable achievement. Or so I would have thought had I not discovered that Debra Webb has in fact written more than 60 novels since 1999; so five novels published in half-a-year shouldn’t come as any real surprise.

In Town This Month

I have found it a quite exhausting February on the London social scene this year, even though for legal reasons I did not attend the two formal banquets put on by publishers HarperCollins and Quercus.

To celebrate a trio of their crime writers, Faber had the wonderful idea of throwing a pub lunch for reviewers, which certainly attracted all the great and the good and even Professor Barry Forshaw to meet novelists Derek B. Miller, Doug Johnstone and Tobias Jones.

 

It was not only a pleasure – and in some cases a surprise – to see fellow critics Chris Simms, Marcel Berlins and Jake Kerridge during daylight hours, and it is always fun to spend time in a saloon bar with the delightful Ayo Onatade, Laura Wilson and Natasha Cooper. More importantly, though, the informal surroundings gave us all ample opportunity to chat to the individual authors and it was a particular pleasure for me to meet Tobias Jones, a British journalist living in Italy and author of the frightening non-fiction book The Dark Heart of Italy as well as the excellent thriller The Salati Case. Tobias accurately predicted the result of the recent Italian general election for me and had I had a clearer head I should have called in at a bookmakers as I left the pub that day, though I suspect the odds on offer would not have been great.

Both Derek B. Miller (an American) and Doug Johnstone (a Scottish person) were celebrating the publication of new novels in February.

 

By a strange twist of coincidence, both feature major roles for six-year-old boys, murdered mothers and gun crimes in countries (Norway and Scotland) which have tragic recent histories when it comes to guns although, perhaps oddly, such events do not feature significantly in the plots of either book.

 

I was unable to attend the opening of the Murder in the Library exhibition at the British Library in January but have at last managed to catch it and although not that easy to find within that iconic building on Euston Road, I would recommend it to all crime and mystery fiction fans. If I have a qualm it is that there is no souvenir brochure brochure or programme available celebrating some of the marvellous artwork on show (and photography is not allowed) and the selection of crime novels on sale in the Library’s gift shop, on a different floor, is strangely limited, although it was nice to see several of Arcturus Books’ reprints of ‘Golden Age’ mysteries on display at very reasonable prices.

 

It is always a pleasure to visit Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court where one is assured of a friendly welcome once one has negotiated one’s way past the ferocious resident guard dog Baskerville, especially when the occasion is to celebrate the new ‘Shetland’ novel Dead Water (out now from Macmillan) by Ann Cleeves.

As well as continuing TV success with her Vera series, Ann looks like doing the double with the forthcoming BBC production of Shetland, starring Douglas Henshall, which is due to be aired soon and is based on her novel  Red Bones. I am confident she is on to another winner with her Shetland-based mysteries for I have what I believe is called an ‘inside track’ from no less a local hero than Chris, pictured above, the fiddler who had flown down from the far north in order to play at Ann’s launch party. Arriving early, I managed to run into Chris in a nearby public house where he was, as professional musicians do, composing himself prior to a public performance with a series of callisthenic exercises designed to increase hand-to-mouth co-ordination. He assured me that absolutely everyone in the Shetlands was reading one of Ann’s books.

Sadly I was not able to enjoy the whole of Chris’ excellent repertoire for a cruel clash of dates meant a hurried dash to the stylish Rebecca Hossack Gallery where Sophie Hannah was launching her new psychological thriller The Carrier, recently published by Hodder.

 

I have already praised Sophie’s new novel and pointed out that she can be a very funny writer for which she does not get enough credit in my not so humble opinion. At the launch Sophie was kind enough to thank me for that observation and added that she always enjoyed writing humorous passages ‘before things start going weird’.

The professional highlight of the month for me was to appear on a public platform once again with Robert Ryan (will he never learn?) and Andrew Williams for the first time, both thriller writers I admire, at a seminar entitled Historically Criminal at the Victoria Library on Buckingham Palace Road.

Basically, Robert and Andrew (whose latest books are set during World War I) were there as living proof that my latest thesis – that some of the best thriller writing at the moment uses historical settings – is absolutely correct. Certainly the enthusiastic and, I think, appreciative audience, did not disagree and their questions sparked an interesting debate on how far one could, or should, replicate historical attitudes and dialogue which today would be regarded as politically very incorrect. There was also a fascinating – and ominously silent – moment when Rob Ryan mentioned the historical thrillers of Dennis Wheatley (notoriously clunky in style and stuffed with huge chunks of text-book history). Perhaps Wheatley might be a candidate for my proposed Richard III Award. Perhaps not.

Historically Speaking

Still on my theme of historical mysteries, I should have mentioned when I raved last time about Andrew Taylor’s The Scent of Death which is set in New York in those heady colonial days of 1778, that what the book cried out for was a map of the city and its environs as it was then.

I was, of course, reading an advance proof at the time and now am delighted to confirm that publishers HarperCollins have included a splendid map in the endpapers of the finished book, which my illustration hardly does justice to.

 

 

I am currently being urged to read the advance proof of Tom Harper’s The Orpheus Descent, to be published by Hodder in May, which involves, it appears, “the greatest secret history the world has ever known” left behind by the Greek philosopher Plato.

Now I always thought the greatest ‘secret history’ (sic) was the method by which publishers work out their authors’ royalty statements, but I am happy to be proved wrong. I am certainly intrigued by the opening sections, set in Ancient Greece in the port of Piraeus where “two-obol whores try to distract men from their work”.

For those without the benefit of a decent education, an “obol” was a small denomination Greek coin and one has to speculate that if the oldest profession was so reasonably priced and the workforce so cheaply distracted, then it is perhaps no wonder that the Greek economy has its problems. The promotional post card which accompanies the book is, however, well worth two obols.

Code of the West

Staying in the history-mystery (-ish) area and bending genres slightly, it’s good to see that the late Robert B. Parker’s second Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole western, Resolution, is finally being published here by Corvus Atlantic, some five years after it appeared in America and three years after the death of the author.

There are, I believe, four Parker novels featuring Hitch and Cole, the itinerant lawmen bringing justice to the Wild West and rumours that the series is to be continued by another writer just as Parker’s more famous series, starring Boston private eye Spenser, is being continued by mystery writer Ace Atkins.

The Daily Mirror is quoted as saying ‘Why Robert B. Parker is not better known in Britain is a mystery’, which I find slightly odd as his short, sassy crime novels featuring Spenser, Sunny Randall or Jesse Stone (not to mention various television adaptations) have been highly regarded by discerning mystery readers here since about 1978. They were invariably popular in the legendary Murder One emporium, which was where I met Bob Parker on one of his rare visits to London. I believe he was quite disappointed to find that (at the time) Amstel beer – Spenser’s favourite tipple – was quite difficult to obtain here, but remained charming and generous with his time when it came to his British fans.

Ring in the New

The latest American crime writer to be signed up by Penguin in the UK (who will perhaps be known as The Random Penguin in the future) is David Bell, whose work has been compared to that of Michael Connelly, Joyce Carol Oates, Kate Atkinson, Dennis Lehane and Heather Gudenkauf (and yes, I had to look that one up too).

David Bell’s second novel, The Hiding Place, has just appeared as a paperback original, whilst Cemetery Girl, his first – just to confuse things – comes out second, in June.

Essex Fest

For legal reasons (yet again) I will not personally be appearing at this year’s Essex Book Festival which is currently under way, but I strongly recommend that anyone in the Epping area (to be precise: Epping) on the afternoon of 13th March calls in at Epping Library to hear Julia Jones talk on her book Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory.

Julia is the biographer of and authority on that most famous of Essex crime writers, Margery Allingham and her latest book examines the career of Margery’s father Herbert Allingham (1867-1935) whose prodigious output of journalism and popular fiction in newspapers and magazines certainly inspired his talented daughter and probably instilled in her the certainty that she was always destined to be a writer.

The world of popular serial fiction Herbert Allingham made a career out of no longer exists and Julia Jones’ account of his life is a valuable piece of social history as well as fascinating sidebar on one of British crime writing’s leading ladies.

World Noir

I am very impressed with the first offerings from Europa Editions’ ‘World Noir’ imprint, which I believe is known in America but is a new player on the crime-in-translation scene here.

Among its first offerings will be the influential ‘Marseilles Trilogy’ by Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000), the most famous of which is probably Total Chaos, and a little known Israeli spy thriller, Minotaur, by Benjamin Tammuz from 1981.

The specialist market leader in crime from far-away places has for many years been the excellent Bitter Lemon Press and in April they excel themselves by bringing to the UK a crime novel from just about as far away as it is possible without leaving the planet.

Resisting (with difficulty) any reference to Middle earth or even Mordor, I must mention Bitter Lemon’s publication in April of Death on Demand by the Godfather of New Zealand crime writing Paul Thomas, which I look forward to with great anticipation, as it features Thomas’ unruly Maori detective Tito Ihaka.

Back in the last century, between 1994 and 1996, three thrillers – Old School Tie, Inside Dope and Guerrilla Season – were published without too much fanfare in the UK and showed that New Zealand not only had a crime writer other than Ngaio Marsh, but that it had a very good one indeed in the form of Paul Thomas. A few of the more discerning reviewers clapped their hands in glee and waited for more, but for 17 years they waited in vain. Until now.

April, but no Fool

At my great age I have no desire for Easter Eggs, unless they are made by Fabergé, but I have already received the fictional equivalent in three new novels which have claimed solid places on my to-be-read pile for April.

To be accurate, Aly Monroe’s Black Bear is not available to the general public until 9th May but I am already sure her publishers, the Jolly Magnificent John Murray, have another critical hit on their hands.

Black Bear is the fourth book to feature reluctant spy Peter Cotton in Monroe’s excellent series set in the post war period just as the Cold War starts to warm up. I have been a fan of Cotton and of Aly Monroe, possibly the leading female writer of spy fiction at the moment, since their debut in The Maze of Cadiz and can’t wait to get started on this one.

Published in April by Orion is a new stand-alone thriller from Robert Crais, Suspect, which is also high on my anticipation-ometer.

I may be in a minority, but I have always preferred Robert Crais’ stand-alones to his Elvis Cole (and Pike) series of private eye books, partly because, perhaps unfairly, I felt he was working a field which Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Hawk duo had already ploughed.

My third April choice is the highly recommended (and again post-war in setting) Glaswegian thriller Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris, published by Corvus.

I have already made a sneaky start on it and am intrigued – and not just by the cover blurbs. The Daily Mail labels Gordon Ferris “The new Ian Rankin” but, following the advice of my old mess-mate Colin Dexter, I studiously ignore anything and everything the Daily Mail says. However, when Val McDermid (who knows of what she speaks) calls Gordon Ferris’ books “Terrific” then I sit up and take notice. After all, I am far more frightened of Val McDermid than I am of the Daily Mail.

TV Guide

Should anyone have any spare time after reading some of the excellent mysteries published so far this year – and I estimate that the first quarter (January-March) has seen at least 119 new titles published in the UK, plus goodness knows how many fantastic reissues (Janet Neel, Donald Hamilton, Leslie Charteris etc.) – they may have been tempted to turn on their televisions.

On the few occasions I have done so, I have been delighted to find a fourth series of the superb French cop/legal drama Spiral (featuring a very sexy and possibly evil redheaded lawyer) running on BBC4; the remarkably confident and very fast-paced Ripper Street on BBC 1 (surely the best thing Jerome Flynn has ever done); and Irishman Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series has finally arrived on Channel 5, having already been seen in numerous other European countries. Occasionally strident, but always powerful, these adaptations of Ken’s books about the ex-Garda officer turned private eye are set in Galway, though partly filmed in Bremen in Germany and star a Scot, the excellent Iain Glen, as Taylor.

Caveat reviewers

I must have mislaid my pinz-nez – or perhaps I was slightly hung over – but when I received a proof copy of a book to be published by Macmillan in June, Reviver by debut author Seth Patrick, my blood ran cold which, for a novel about something called the Forensic Revival Service and is said to be likely to appeal to fans of Stephen King, is quite apt.

However, the chill running down my spine was nothing to do with the book’s content, as I have not yet had time to read it, but rather to my complete mis-understanding of the cover of the proof. You see, in my blurred-vision state, I misread the title and the catch-line as Reviewers – Death Won’t Silence Them.

Which is not only scary, but true.

Pip! Pip!

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