Normally the Annual General Meeting of the Margery Allingham Society is a civilised affair, with a luncheon, a guest speaker and the ceremonial cutting of a birthday cake as the event usually takes place on or about Margery’s birthday on 20th May. Due to the pandemic, last year’s AGM was cancelled but this year went ahead through the wonder of Zoom (whatever that is) and even included a guest speaker, the erudite critic and crime writer, Mr Peter Guttridge.
It was my very first ‘Zoom’ meeting and unsure of the protocol of these things, I made sure I was wearing my official tie and matching face-mask (to guard against computer viruses) which bear a sketch of Margery’s famous detective Albert Campion done by her husband, the artist Pip Youngman Carter.
At the AGM it was reported that this year’s short story competition, run in conjunction with the Crime Writers’ Association, had attracted a record number of entries and funding was agreed for a further four years.
Recent renovations here at Ripster Hall have necessitated the re-shelving of many books which gave me the chance to examine some treasured volumes. I am not a fanatical collector of signed first editions (I know many of the readers of this column are) except where they have been given to me by their authors and whilst perusing them, I was amused to be reminded of the personal dedications made, in some cases, more than twenty-five years ago.
Aware that this is very much a family-orientated column, I have selected half a dozen of the most repeatable dedications and provided a list of the crime writers who inscribed them. So this month’s competition is to match the author to the dedication quoted below:
1) I’m philosophical about knowing you...
2) To Mike [Insert suitable inscription here, possibly including a pun on the word ‘Angel’]. Cheers!
3) For Mike - my mentor & guide...
4) For Mike - Our late friendship together is a great joy to me!
5) To Mike: the only man who makes me laugh more than I do !
6) From one bullshitter to another with love...
a) Michael Dibdin
b) Ian Rankin
c) Philip Kerr
d) Val McDermid
e) Len Deighton
f) Colin Dexter
Entries should be submitted to the Editor citing Ripster in the subject line by the end of the month and there will be prize.
Surfing the Obituary columns, as one does at my age, I read recently of the death of actor and writer Edwin Apps (born 1931), best known for creating the BBC television sit-com All Gas and Gaiters which some of my readers - those who also check the daily Obits - may remember. The Daily Telegraph reports that Apps, as a young actor in rep appearing at the Canterbury Festival in 1949, found himself appointed ‘minder’ to that year’s Writer in Residence, Dorothy L. Sayers and on one occasion had to rescue that particular Queen of Crime from a bomb crater into which she had tumbled after a festive sherry party. Would that modern day crime writers on tour were supplied with similar guardian angels. I can think of several examples where they would have proved useful.
Still suffering from withdrawal symptoms from the completion of the final series of the wonderful Spiral and reeling from the multi-language Zero Zero Zero, my latest ‘binge watch’ (as the young people say) in the latter days of lockdown has been Il Cacciatorewhich was presented to me by someone called Walter on something called All 4.
Based on real events in Sicily in the 1990s, Il Cacciatore (The Hunter) follows the campaign of the Anti-Mafia Commission to capture a fugitive Mafia boss and ‘decapitate’ the awesomely ruthless (and very well-armed) Corleone clan. Corruption and mistrust are rife among both the hunted and the hunters, the central performances are outstanding, the male characters smoking heroically throughout and the production values superb. But a word of warning to anyone learning Italian and trying to watch without the sub-titles: good luck with the Sicilian dialect. I understand that there is a second series, though Walter has yet to offer it to me, and that a third is being made remarkably, I believe, with the co-operation of the Sicilian tourist board.
I am also delighted to see that a second series of City On A Hill is Now available (Now - geddit?), the excellent crime drama set in Boston in the 1990s with Kevin Bacon as a rogue, turned-to-the-dark-side FBI agent.
I admit that I came to this show originally because I mistakenly thought it was based on the work of George V. Higgins, although it is so good, it could have been. Higgins (1939-1999) was one of the greatest American crime writers of the second half of the 20th century and is also responsible for this wonderful piece of philosophy: Writing is a hard game. No-one asked you to start. No-one will notice if you stop.
Do Mention the War
One of the many PhDs I will now never complete would have been a study of how British thriller writers reacted to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, a subject which has interested me since I first read the early work of Eric Ambler, Geoffrey Household, Hammond Innes and Helen MacInnes. Later, I discovered Francis Beeding and Alexander Wilson (with mixed emotions) and steeled myself to read the, at the time, immensely popular Peter Cheyney and James Hadley Chase.
Recently I discovered a thriller and an author previously unknown to me: The Crew of the Anaconda by A. G. Macdonell, first published in 1940 and set on the very day the war started.
Archibald ‘Archie’ Gordon Macdonell (1895-1941) was a Scottish journalist who made his name with the satirical England, Their England in 1933, but also wrote plays, detective stories and broadcasts for the Empire Service of the BBC. As far as I can tell, The Crew of the Anaconda was his only full-blown thriller and I get the impression he had a lot of fun writing it despite the onset of the second world war, especially as he had been invalided out of the army with shell shock in the first one.
Billed as ‘a secret service thriller’ The Crew of the Anaconda features an Irish hero, the captain of the titular high speed motorboat, and, unsurprisingly, his crew of three. All of them have rather shady pasts, mostly acquired during Prohibition in America or with various South American gangsters, and when Rio de Janiero becomes too hot for them, they zip across the ocean (narrowly avoiding a wandering U-boat) for a quieter life in London, arriving on the morning of 3rd September 1939. Naturally - in the world of two-fisted thrillers - the crew are immediately recruited by a senior Intelligence officer to discover how top secret plans are being leaked to the Germans with frightening speed, MI5, MI6 and Scotland Yard all being incapable of doing so.
It is very much of its time, with references to Pelmanism and Deanna Durbin, though not necessarily in the same sentence, and far too many casual droppings of the ‘n’ word for modern sensibilities (though in a half-hearted defence, I would point out that contemporary works by Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway were equally guilty). But it is a rollicking good read as our unorthodox heroes, given complete access to the inner workings of the government, discover, mostly by hanging around in shady night clubs patronised by American gangsters, that the plot revolves around the Nazis forthcoming U-boat offensive.
Interestingly, those twin themes - seedy clubland and the threat of submarine warfare - were prominent in two of the other books I would have cited in my PhD:
U-boats in Hammond Innes’ classic Wreckers Must Breathe (actually written before war broke out) and in the sleazy nightclubs of James Hadley Chase’s short story collection Get A Load of This, published in 1941. Written in 1940 when Chase was serving in the RAF, the author clearly saw it as his duty to keep entertaining his loyal readers. He said of this collection: ‘The stories have enough dynamite to make the average guy forget the blackout and the blitz - which, after all, is what we want to do at this moment.’
Kiss of Death
Once again the curse of the Ripsters has struck when it comes to the annual Gold and Steel Dagger Awards of the Crime Writers’ Association and I have to apologise for nominating Ian Rankin and John Lawton as my personal picks for, respectively, crime novel and thriller of the year 2020.
Neither A Song for the Dark Times nor Hammer To Fall made the CWA’s short lists for the Gold Dagger and the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, though oddly, two authors made both: Robert Galbraith and Chris Whitaker. However, I am delighted to see Vaseem Khan on the short list for the Historical Dagger for Midnight At Malabar House and relieved that the fact that I liked it went unnoticed.
Fire and Ice
I have made no secret of the fact that two of my favourite practitioners of ‘Nordic Noir’ are not themselves Nordic but usually find themselves at the other end of the Eurovision scoreboard by being British: Quentin Bates and Michael Ridpath.
In July, Michael Ridpath reveals what attracted him to Iceland as a setting for a series of crime novels featuring detective Magnus Jonson, in Writing In Ice [Yarmer].
Essentially a love letter to the geography, people and sagas of Iceland, Ridpath’s memoir not only charts his research into the Icelandic psyche but also provides a road map for planning, plotting and writing a crime novel set in a foreign country and along the way he generously notes the success with that format of Craig Russell’s novels set in Hamburg and David Hewson’s Nic Costa series set in Rome.
Despite the travel restrictions imposed by Covid, the difficult language and the ‘appalling weather’, you know that Ridpath is itching to go back to that land of fire and ice, beyond The Wall where the wildlings live, though he wisely resists the temptation to make Game of Thrones references.
The current pandemic has thrown out many a publishing schedule and resulted in some curious coincidences which in more normal times would surely have been avoided. In the last few weeks I have been made aware of two thrillers featuring hijacked aeroplanes and brave flight attendants, two psychological mysteries set in and around ballet companies, two suggesting outbreaks of a plague beyond Covid, and two called The Therapist.
A far less coincidental double take is the welcome news that August will see a new historical mystery from Ambrose Perry, the pen-name of the writing duo, and married couple, Christopher Brookmyre and Dr Marisa Haetzman.
A Corruption of Blood [Canongate] is the couple’s third novel set in 19thcentury Edinburgh to feature Dr Will Raven and aspiring doctor Sarah Fisher, who find little sunshine on Leith when bits of bodies start floating ashore. The tag line for the book is Edinburgh. This city will bleed you dry, something I am sure I have heard several Glaswegians say in the past.
Revivals of the Month
I tip my fedora once more towards innovative American outfit Stark House Press who are reviving the work of Jean Potts (1910-1999) in one of their double volume books containing The Only Good Secretary, from 1965, and The Man with the Cane (1957).
I discovered Jean Potts years ago through her early novel , the Edgar-winning Go, Lovely Rose (1954) and have always rated her as one of the leading exponents of ‘domestic suspense’.
The pen-name Richard Falkirk is usually associated with historical novels featuring Edmund Blackstone, “the James Bond of the Bow Street Runners”, and it hid the identity of thriller writer Derek Lambert (1929-2001), many of whose bestselling spy novels were based on his experiences as the foreign correspondent for the Daily Express in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.
On two occasions, Lambert used the pen-name for contemporary tales of espionage and his 1972 title The Twisted Wire is now reissued by HarperCollins.
Set in Israel, The Twisted Wire is a convincing, fast-paced adventure where a British geologist (having inadvertently tapped into an American embassy phone call) find himself a walking target with plenty of snipers around. There is a memorable scene where someone is shot whilst swimming in the Dead Sea and the hard-nosed journalist in Falkirk/Lambert cannot resist noting that although the body floats away, it will never sink...
Lambert is one of the disgracefully overlooked British thriller writers of that boom time of the 1960s and 70s, though a big seller in his day. Apart from his extensive knowledge of Soviet Russia, which he used to great effect, he was also fascinated by World War II and I believe that novels such as the gripping The Judas Code and Vendetta (both with Russian settings)have been made available as eBooks.
It is some years now since I enjoyed ‘face time’ (as the young people say when they realise their elders cannot type with their thumbs) with Canadian queen of crime Louise Penny. Often, when she crossed the Atlantic we would enjoy a good gossip about her second career as a lumberjack and discuss the latest fiction of interest, even though, for legal reasons, I have fallen behind in the reading of her multi-award winning novels.
I have no idea if Louise has a post-Covid plan to visit the UK, though in normal times she would have every excuse to do so as she has not one but two new books out in the latter half of the year.
In August, her legion of fans will welcome the seventeenth case for Chief Inspector Gamache when The Madness of Crowds [Hodder] is published and she will probably attract a new tranche of readers with the publication of State of Terror [Macmillan] in October, which she has co-authored with Hilary Clinton, now in competition with her husband Bill who has, with James Patterson, co-authored The President’s Daughter published this month by Century.
Books of the Month
Widowland [Quercus] by C.J. Carey, the pen-name of Jane Thynne, the widow of Philip Kerr, is a heady mixture: part romantic thriller, partly a book about the power of literature, an alternative history and, overall, a chilling piece of dystopian fiction.
The Second World War has not happened (well, not yet) because a Grand Alliance between Britain and Nazi Germany was concluded in 1940 to which resistance seems to have been futile. The Royal Family, Churchill and other trouble-makers have been ‘vanished’ and Edward VIII reinstated as king, with Queen Wallis at his side. Their Coronation, however, does not take place until 1953 (for reasons I must have missed), a very significant year for other reasons far to the east of Europe, but ‘Alliance Britain’ is pretty much cut off from the rest of the world and the female population - most of the younger males having been deported - has to cope not only with physical and social deprivations and a police state, but with the lunatic caste system imposed by their Nazi overlords.
The story centres on Rose Ransom, a woman fortunate enough to be classed as a ‘Geli’ (after Hitler’s niece Geli Raubal), who enjoys a privileged existence, a job at the Ministry of Culture and a German lover. Rose’s job involves re-writing ‘dangerous’ popular works of literature to make sure they conform to Nazi ideology - especially anything written by a woman - and her research takes her to Oxford and an area - a ghetto? - reserved for widows, who are seen of no practical use to the Alliance regime. It is in Oxford that the bookworm turns and Rose discovers that some books can be really dangerous after all.
T.J. Newman is a former flight attendant, so she knows of what she writes and did actually write much of her debut thriller Falling [Simon & Schuster] during quiet time on long-distance flights, quiet time not experienced by the passengers and crew of the Los Angeles to New York flight in her novel, not after the plane has been hijacked by terrorists bent on a suicide mission
In a rather over-elaborate plot, the pilot’s family is taken hostage and he is ordered to crash the plane into an (initially) unspecified target as revenge against America for abandoning former Kurdish allies in Syria. The pilot has to choose between the death of his family or completing the suicide mission, though quite why it is so important that he has to choose isn’t clear, as the terrorists seem to have pretty good Plan B lined up. They have not, though, taken the resourcefulness of the cabin crew into account and the fact that modern means of communication can work both ways.
Falling screams along, split between tense scenes on board the plane and the efforts of the FBI on the ground and I confidently predict that will make T.J. Newman a very rich lady, be turned into a blockbuster movie (with or without Liam Neesom) and that the movie will never be shown as in-flight entertainment.
A character sees a murder being committed (usually through the window of a train), but according to the police, there is no body and therefore no murder. Such is the opening shot of many a crime novel, but in I Know What I Saw [Raven Books], Imran Mahmood gives it a new and disturbing twist.
The protagonist here is a former (very) wealthy high-flyer who has opted to be homeless and has been living on the streets of London for thirty years, having mentally divided the city into colour-coded safe zones for rough sleepers. Taking shelter in an empty Mayfair flat, he witnesses the murder of a woman; or did he? The police find no body and the flat is not how their ‘witness’ described it. Is it possible that he was witnessing - or even committing - a murder from the past? Are the dangers and indignities of rough sleeping some sort of self-imposed penance for his past crimes? The answers have to be uncoiled from the protagonist’s twisted personal history, and that is a grim journey which he seems totally unsuited to undertake.
I Know What I Saw is a grim story cut through with pathos; powerfully, almost hypnotically, told.
Just when you thought you could not be any more shocked by the outrageous behaviour of those wanting to inhabit The White House, Matthew Quirk’s Hour of the Assassin [Head of Zeus] restores your faith in writers of breathless thrillers, if not politicians.
Reminiscent of Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact from nearly thirty years ago, an experienced close protection agent (bodyguard) is set up for the murder of the former CIA director on whose personal security he was advising. It is all part of a cover-up of earlier crimes committed - perhaps - by a presidential candidate with a philosophy, these days, which seems entirely plausible and capable of attracting votes (if not a popular majority). The action is non-stop and the tradecraft - especially in the framing of the lone hero - is totally convincing.
The main character in Nemesis [Head of Zeus] is also a close protection specialist, but this time a British policeman and not a Praetorian Guard, as one might have expected from the pen of Anthony Riches who made his name with two series of historical novels set among the soldiery of Imperial Rome.
Our hero (anti-hero?), Mickey Bale, is officially on duty to protect the Minister of Defence, but unofficially and off duty, he is conducting a murderous vendetta against the London crime family who supplied his sister with a lethal dose of drugs. This may be Anthony Riches’ first contemporary-set novel but he throws his protagonist into a gladiatorial climax worthy of Ancient Rome.
The words ‘psychological domestic suspense’ are bandied about liberally these days when describing a certain school of crime fiction, but could not be more accurate than when applied to Katie Lowe’s second novel The Murder of Graham Catton [HarperCollins] which begins with the very domestic murder of the academic and perfect husband of the title. His wife, a psychologist, is a prime suspect but an innocent man, Mike Phillips (no relation to the crime writer), is sent to prison for the crime.
Ten years later his conviction is overturned and an investigative ‘podcast’- seemingly more professional and better resourced than both the police and the judicial system - points the finger at the psychologist widow and mother of a teenage daughter, who very soon shows signs of cracking up under the pressure. Over more than 400 pages, Graham Catton’s widow is taunted and manipulated by a villain so clever you feel they are wasted in rural Derbyshire. Even more frightening than the seemingly awesome (and unaccountable) influence of the podcast are the vile - and totally believable - ‘tweets’ generated by it on a very unsocial media.
One of the greatest achievements of a crime writer is to be able to create empathy with or sympathy for an unlikeable fictional character. It was something Minette Walters used to do with consummate ease but I don’t feel that Christine Mangan has quite managed it in Palace of the Drowned [Little Brown], where most of the main characters are unlikeable, but then they are writers and publishers...
Middle-aged spinster novelist ‘Frankie’, after early literary success (though she doesn’t seem to enjoyed the rewards of such) is unhinged by a critical review of her latest novel. So unhinged, she throws a very public wobbler at an event at The Savoy and is sent to Venice to lie low in a spooky, crumbling canal-side palazzo. For a novelist, Frankie seems remarkably uninterested in people or even Venice - although she visits the Doge’s Palace several times, she has no idea where St Mark’s Square is or that Florian’s is famous for its outrageous prices. But her boredom doesn’t last long as she encounters a young English girl, Gilly, who claims to be her biggest fan and, of course, is a wannabe author herself. Fandom turns into obsession and stalking and it is never going to end well for either, or both, of them.
The main action centres on Venice during the terrible flooding of 1966 which is, curiously, one of the few historical details about the novel’s setting. Apart from one reference to short skirts and one to a London telephone box (remember them?), it is only the Venice flood which anchors the book in the mid-Sixties though it is the dark, pungent waters of the Venetian canals and lagoon which have the last word.
Most Memorable Title
Next month, those tireless enthusiasts at Dean Street Press are rolling out another ten titles - making twenty in total so far - celebrating the mysteries of Anne Morice and her actress sleuth Tessa Chrichton. The pen-name of Felicity Shaw (1916-1989), Anne Morice began to write ‘Golden Age’ detective puzzles in 1970, a time when, according to the Introduction, the Golden Age had seemingly ‘sunk into shadow like the sun at eventide’ although it was also the year which saw debut novels from Margaret Yorke, Peter Lovesey and Reginald Hill, writers whose reputations have all lasted longer.
However, I was delighted to learn that the nineteenth title in the Tessa Crichton series delights in the title Getting Away with Murder?
In fact that’s so good, I am tempted to dispense with the question mark and steal it.
Two Jabs Ripster