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April foolishness? Lost fictions

When is a post not a real post? When is a book not a book? When is a fiction a ‘real’ fiction?

One of the standout features of Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men is the prominence in the plot of the literary accomplishments of creepy suspect Paul Chapin, author of such (fictitious) works as ‘Devil Take the Hindmost’ – indeed, it is through a detailed analysis of Chapin’s work that Wolfe is be able to crack the case. This got me thinking about long and honourable history of fictitious novels and the allure of lost manuscripts in general. Henry James’ The Aspern Papers is certainly one of the most notable of such works but in the mystery genre it does seem to be particularly prevalent – this is in addition of course to all the works inspired by to the references in Arthur Conan Doyle  to unreported tales, such as in the case of the ‘Giant Rat of Sumatra’, most notably in the book of short stories by Doyle’s son Adrian and John Dickson Carr in the 1950s (published as The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes) and most recently the pastiches written for radio by Bert Coules as The Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes. Continue reading

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HRF Keating RIP

It has been announced that the mystery author and critic HRF Keating died at the weekend at the age of 84.

Henry Reymond Fitzwalter Keating, known informally as Harry, will probably be best remembered for creating Inspector Ghote of the Indian police, though more recently he had started a new series featuring Harriet Martens. He was also a fine critic and reviewed crime fiction for The Times for over 15 years, taking over from Julian Symons.

His list of 100 of the best in mystery fiction can be found online here:

Keating’s homepage is at: Continue reading

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Miss Marple to be played by … Jennifer Garner?

It has been announced in various places online, include and Deadline Hollywood that Disney is planning to make a new movie starring Miss Marple. It has engaged Mark Frost, co-creator of Twin Peaks, to write the script and has cast Jennifer Garner in the title role. Continue reading

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L is for … THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN (1935) by Rex Stout

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter L. My contribution this week is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge. L is for …


There are some books that in order to properly savour you have allow them time to properly ferment, books of such standing that to properly appreciate their vintage you must allow for expectation to build, perhaps even over a matter of years or perhaps decades before you metaphorically uncork them. To put it more prosaically, there are books that you know are probably really, really good and you are prepared to indulge in some serious deferred gratification so as to not to ruin them. I knew after my first Carter Dickson experience (the wonderfully titled, THE READER IS WARNED) that I would want to read all the author’s books – and the same went after my first encounters with Raymond Chandler (THE BIG SLEEP), Graham Greene (BRIGHTON ROCK), Ellery Queen (FACE TO FACE), Ross Macdonald (THE CHILL), Margaret Millar (THE SOFT TALKERS), John le Carre (CALL FOR THE DEAD) and so many other that, over thirty years later, I still read with undimmed pleasure. And I am glad to say that for most of these writers there are still a few examples of their work, in some cases major ones, that I have left deliberately untouched, saving them as small investment for my future, perhaps to stave off a time when I will no longer be able to contemplate one. That list has of course been getting shorter and shorter as the years have gone by, and THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN is one of the last of the unread Rex Stout books on my shelves – and I finished it today, having first made plans to read it overt twenty years ago. Was it worth the wait? Continue reading

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The 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reached the letter K. My contributions this week have been four of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain with titles starting with the letter K. Why four? There were just too many good ones to choose from is one answer – another is that actually this is all the fault of the Puzzledoctor! In an exchange over at his fine blog we discussed potential titles that might fit the letter K, L and M as part of the Alphabet of Crime meme, particularly from the hard-boiled and police procedural categories of which I am a particular fan. Batting titles to and fro, I was suddenly struck by quite how many of Ed McBain’s books from the 87th Precinct series start with the letter K – and, as I have them all, I thought I would try something different this week. I would blog on four of the novels, all published between 1958 and 1959, to explore quite how varied the series could be but choosing them also so that I could submit all of them towards my pre-1960 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge currently running over at Bev’s Block. To go directly to those reviews, please click on the following links:
Killer’s Choice
Killer’s Payoff
Killer’s Wedge
King’s Ransom

This post however is by way of an introduction to Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct series, which consist of 55 volumes Continue reading

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K is for … KING’S RANSOM (1959) by Ed McBain

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter K. My contribution this week is made up of a quartet of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain published before 1960 so as to also be eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge. Today’s book is …

“If you try to figure out what motivates a crook, you go nuts.”
“You’re destroying a boy’s faith in detective fiction,” Meyer said.

Evan Hunter first came to prominence as the author of The Blackboard Jungle (1954), an expose of juvenile delinquency that was turned into an even more successful movie by MGM shortly afterwards. For the next 15 years or so Hunter would continue to publish serious mainstream novels on topical subjects and many of these would also be adapted for the cinema, including Strangers When We Meet (book 1958, film 1960), A Matter of Conviction (1959, filmed in 1961 as The Young Savages) and Buddwing (1964, filmed as Mister Buddwing in 1966). During these years Hunter also became a successful screenwriter, adapting his and other people’s works for the cinema and television. The impact of the latter can certainly be felt in the crime novels he started to publish under the ‘Ed McBain’ byline starting with Cop Hater (1956), the first novel in the 87th Precinct series. Continue reading

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K is for … KILLER’S WEDGE (1959) by Ed McBain

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter K. My contribution this week is made up of a quartet of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain published before 1960 so as to also be eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge. Today’s book is …


“There was, of course, no such thing as a locked-door murder mystery.”

McBain makes his first great stylistic departure in this, the eight volume in his 87th Precinct series, juxtaposing two radically different cases and two completely different traditions within the mystery genre, the whole kept tightly bound together by the exertion of the titular pressure – and all taking place in a single afternoon. In fact the novel takes place in just under 4 hours in total. Continue reading

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K is for … KILLER’S PAYOFF (1958) by Ed McBain

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter K. My contribution this week is made up of a quartet of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain published before 1960 so as to also be eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge. Today’s book is …


“You can carry deduction only so far”

This novel continues directly from Killer’s Choice, the previous book in the series, and begins about 10 days later. It includes some of the same characters from that novel and in fact even reveals the name of the murderer in passing, so the two should definitely be read in sequence if possible. It is still June 1957 but the balmy weather has turned to rain and one evening, in the style of a 1930s gangster hit, a man is gunned down from a passing car. But Sy Kramer isn’t shot with a tommy gun – rather, it’s a hunting rifle and he wasn’t a mobster but a blackmailer, albeit a prosperous one living the high life. And now it’s up to detectives Kling, Carella and Hawes to find out which of his victims decided to turn the tables and become a predator. Continue reading

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K is for … KILLER’S CHOICE (1957) by Ed McBain

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter K. My contribution this week is made up of a quartet of the 87th Precinct mysteries by Ed McBain published before 1960 so as to also be eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge. Today’s book is …


“Like on Dragnet?”
“Better than Dragnet” Kling said, modestly.

This entry, the fifth in the series, made two significant adjustments to the roster of characters courtesy of an appropriately dramatic departure and a major new addition to the team of detectives.

Set in June 1957, it follows two murder cases which criss-cross and ironically overlap but which are otherwise completely distinct and separate. Annie Boone is found shot dead inside the liquor store where she worked as a cashier, covered in alcohol and shards of glass in what appears to have been part of a frenzied but inexplicable destruction of the stock. Indeed the boss seems sorrier about the loss of his merchandise than of his faithful employee. That same night one of the 87th precinct’s toughest detectives, the violent and cynical Roger Havilland, sees a dazed young man sitting on the sidewalk outside a shop. Uncharacteristically he actually tries to help, but is repaid by a violent shove through the shop’s plate glass window. The detective’s carotid artery is severed by a shard of glass and bleeds to death while his assailant makes a fast getaway. The man had in fact just attempted to rob the shop and had been shot in the shoulder by the barely conscious proprietor as he escaped. Continue reading

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J is for … THE JUDAS WINDOW (1938) by Carter Dickson

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter J, and my nomination is …

J is for … The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson.

I began my last post for the Alphabet Crime meme by declaring my lack of enthusiasm for the modern Grisham-style legal thriller – and then proved it was all stuff and nonsense by praising Scott Turow’s latest example of the genre to the hills. And this week I’ve compounded my lack of credibility by picking another courtroom drama, but this time at least I’ve got some mitigating factors I can offer in my defence: not only is it from the golden age of detective stories, not only is it by my all time favourite mystery author John Dickson Carr, but it’s a stone cold classic of my favourite subcategory of the genre: the locked room mystery. In fact this is a book that ticks so many boxes for me that I am also offering it as the third of my eligible books as part of the 2011 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge over at Bev’s Reader’s Block website (check it out, it’s amazing – I just don’t know where she finds the energy or the time to do all that reading and blogging – she’s a true demon and an inspiration that one). Continue reading

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PLAYBACK (1958) by Raymond Chandler

“Guns never settle anything. They are just a fast curtain to a bad second act.”

Some detectives get go out in a blaze of glory like Poirot in Agatha Christie’s near-posthumous Curtain or Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse in The Remorseful Day; more often than not though the law of diminishing returns has set in long before their final farewell. Certainly one wouldn’t want to remember Lord Peter Wimsey only through Busman’s Honeymoon or Albert Campion in The Mind Readers or John Dickson Carr for The Hungry Goblin, to name just a few. Christie it should be noted employed a particularly ingenious solution to try to bypass this problem as the novel has in fact been written over 30 years earlier – certainly, if one compares it with the final books she completed, such as Elephants Can Remember (the actual final Poirot book) or Postern of Fate, the contrast is very stark indeed so as to make one even more grateful for her foresight.

Playback (1958) is generally agreed to the be the least of Chandler’s novels, with its slender plot and small cast of characters; but on the other hand this works to its advantage in the broadcast medium as discussed in the review of the recent BBC radio version over at Audio Aficionado Continue reading

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I is for … INNOCENT (2010) by Scott Turow

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter I, my nomination is …

I is for … INNOCENT (2010) by Scott Turow

I’ve never been a particular fan of the modern legal thriller, despite a) being a confirmed mystery addict, b) loving courtroom dramas on TV and at the cinema and c) someone who got a law degree at university. What I really mean I suppose is that despite several notable examples of serious literary activity in the courtroom that I greatly admire – including important books by such authors as Charles Dickens, EM Forster, Harper Lee and Victor Hugo – I am not a fan of the genre as it has developed today through the efforts of the likes of John Grisham or Steve Martini, often finding them either too dry to engage with or too overblown to convince. But I know plenty of people who are thoroughly addicted to the genre and Scott Turow is always placed very near to the top of the heap. Continue reading

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H is for … HAZELL PLAYS SOLOMON (1974) by PB Yuill

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter H, so I nominate …


“My name is James Hazell and I’m the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell-button”

And so begins the first in a series of three brisk novels (and one short story) featuring the East End of London’s answer to Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and the Continental Op. It’s a great opening line, but not really that representative of the tone of the book as a whole, or of the lead character either come to that.

Hazell is 33, recently divorced, a recovering alcoholic and late of the Metropolitan Police Force (following a severe beating from a vicious gang of thieves who virtually destroyed his ankle). After hitting skid row (or the East End of London’s equivalent) he is trying to put his life back together as a private inquiry agent. Although undeniably tough (and emotionally immature) he is also far from being a total cynic – he has a lot more in common say with Ross Macdonald’ Lew Archer (featured in last week’s post) than cro-magnum PI’s like Mike Hammer and with considerably more humour than either. Continue reading

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Guides to Mystery Fiction

Like so many aficionados of the genre, I got into mystery fiction at an early age, probably through exposure to film and TV adaptations. I certainly remember the great excitement of seeing the movie version of DEATH ON THE NILE (1978) when I was 10 years old at my local ABC cinema in Maidenhead and I suspect that I started reading Agatha Christie’s novels very shortly afterwards. The same was also probably the case with the much-filmed books by Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler, the first ‘adult’ authors that I remember reading and getting really excited about. My fascination with the history of the genre is also fairly easy to pin down – it began when I came across the original 1972 edition in hardback of Julian Symons’ personal history of the genre, Bloody Murder (published in the US as ‘Mortal Consequences’), at the local library while visiting my grandparents in Horsham, West Sussex. After 30 years I still find myself regularly referring to it and so it has to come top of my list of reference works on the genre. Continue reading

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G is for … THE GALTON CASE (1959) by Ross Macdonald

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter G, so I nominate …
THE GALTON CASE (1959) by Ross Macdonald
Private detective Lew Archer (known in some editions as Lew Arless, and in the cinema, as played by Paul Newman, as ‘Lew Harper’) first appeared in THE MOVING TARGET (1949) by John Macdonald, a pseudonym for Margaret Millar’s husband Kenneth (named, not insignificantly as we shall see, after his father, John Macdonald Millar). Following complaints from fellow mystery writer John D. MacDonald, the pseudonym quickly transmuted into ‘Ross Macdonald’ as the books grew in critical acclaim. Macdonald in fact was quickly heralded as the natural successor to Hammett and Chandler in the hardboiled genre, a serious author using the crime genre with literary intent and not just a purveyor of tough guy pulp fictions. The eighth Archer novel, THE GALTON CASE, was first published in 1959 and in many ways can be seen as a turning point in Millar’s career. Continue reading

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F is for … Fredric Brown

Over at the always informative, market-leading In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel blog, attention has been drawn to the Alphabet of Crime, in which every week a successive letter of the alphabet has to be reflected in a blog entry either through the title of a book or the first or last name of an author. Sounds like fun – so, tipping my fedora in acknowledgement … Continue reading

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THE DEVIL’S TEARDROP by Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver originally studied journalism and he employs and unfussy, nuts and bolts prose style that partially explains why he has recently followed a long line of authors – including John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and (in a junior capacity) Charlie Higson – in continuing the literary adventures of James Bond with the forthcoming publication of Carte Blanche. Deaver is also, like Fleming, drawn to pulpy plots involving grand schemes from master professional criminals and heroes with well-hidden human frailties and vulnerabilities. In other respects though he is very different from Fleming, most notably his trademark love of puzzles and endless twists and turns and his general avoidance of descriptive passages. Undeniably though he is a very capable writer of thrillers as well as a best-selling author (the two don’t always go together, let’s face it). He is best know for the series featuring Lincoln Rhyme, a forensic detective who, being a quadriplegic, is in a very real sense a ‘armchair detective’. He was played by Denzel Washington in The Bone Collector, a reasonably successful movie adaptation of the first of the series. Rhyme makes a guest appearance in The Devil’s Teardrop, but the main character is Parker Kincaid, a graphologist working in Washington DC who retired from active FBI duties to keep his two young children out of harm’s way. Continue reading

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JAR CITY by Arnaldur Indridason

Following a hot lead from Mrs Peabody’s blog I have undertaken my first experience of volcano-free Icelandic crime (well, outside of banking …) and can’t recommend the experience highly enough.
JAR CITY is the first in a series of books featuring police detective Erlendur. The setting in 2001 was meant to be marginally ahead of the times as this was originally published the year before, but the English translation dates back to 2004 anyway (which could do with some improved proof reading incidentally). The references to the internet and DNA were probably a bit more cutting edge at the time though personally I found that this tended to favour the book about a culture so removed from that of most contemporary crime novels. Continue reading

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9 of the Best by Ellery Queen

Why 9? Well, 40 seemed too many, 5 was too few while the number 9 features heavily in the last Queen novel which was always going to be the last of my list, so … QED (a latin maxim which in one of the stories is amusingly mis-translated as ‘Queens’s Experiments in Deduction’).

Along with John Dickson Carr, Queen was the great detective story writer of my youth – when I turned 13 I began devouring their stories, marvelling at the ingenuity as they caught me out time and again. I’ll get round to Carr soon, but then again such a good job has already been done over at the ‘In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel’ blog that it is going to take a lot more effort to come up with something new to say.

“Ellery Queen” was the pseudonym of the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who also used the name for the detective, who is himself an author of detective stories. This is typical of the convolutions within their stories, which initially offered a ‘Challenge to the Reader’, claiming that at a certain point all the clues existed to deduced (never ‘guess’) who the murderer was. Lee later was polite enough to admit that this was probably only true if the reader was a genius! Continue reading

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Philip Marlowe returns to BBC radio

Raymond Chandler’s immortal private eye Philip Marlowe today makes a return to radio. The last time the BBC adapted the novels, UK-based American character actor Ed Bishop took the role in 90-minute versions of the first six novels in the series broadcast between 1977 and 1988, omitting the final book Playback.

Now that book, along with Poodle Springs, the Chandler fragment that was turned into a full-length novel thirty years later by Robert B. Parker, are to be included in a cycle of eight adaptations. Continue reading

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Best of Postmodern Mysteries

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Is the detective story fundamentally a postmodern genre?

During the ‘Golden Age’ of the detective story, between the two World Wars, the genre developed as a game in which ingenuity and surprise were much more important than characterisation or plausibility. The likes of Monsignor Ronald Knox and SS Van Dine created rigid lists of what was, and was not, permissible in a detective story, in much the same way as one would seek to establish the conventions of a round of Bridge – there were puzzles in the real sense of the word, constructed like crossword puzzles and frequently appealing to those in search of distraction by way of gentle brainteaser. Crime not as literature but as a form of narrative Sudoku in which the main virtue was the ability to create order from seeming chaos and succeed in tricking the opponent / reader. Inevitably many of the stories written then and shortly thereafter extended the ‘rules of engagement’ to include parody but such was the sense of ‘gamesmanship’ that knowing postmodern jokes and tropes started to enter the genre even before the term ‘postmodern had come into general use after the end of the Second World War.

Below I list some of the postmodern mystery stories that I have enjoyed the most – this is clearly a short and personal list of favourites and I would be very interested to know of titles that other readers would include in their lists. Continue reading

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The SS Van Dine Murder Case

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‘S.S. Van Dine’ was the pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939) who was regarded in the teens and twenties as the greatest American authority on Nietzsche (my copy of Beyond Good and Evil has an introduction by Wright, who is called therein “ of the foremost students and interpreters of Nietzsche in America”). According the publicity of the time, he created his fictional sleuth Philo Vance following a long illness during which he had been banned from reading anything more stimulating than detective stories (!!). The character is similar to Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, also being a rich aristocrat who likes to solve crimes and is prone to dropping quotes and citations as he goes. In the case of Wright the erudition was pretty impressive and usually linked to the cases fairly convincingly. Continue reading

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In praise of … Stuart Kaminsky (1934-2009)

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In some ways, Stuart M. Kaminsky’s place here is absolutely essential – he was a prolific writer of all kinds of crime novels (psychological, suspense, thrillers, spy fiction as well as the hard-boiled mysteries he is best known for), and won the Edgar for best Mystery novel for A Cold Red Sunrise, a police procedural set in Siberia. But, he also had a long career as professor of film; and his best novels are the series featuring shambolic shamus Toby Peters (the names of his two sons) which ably combine excellent plots with vivid descriptions of California in the 1930s and 40s and a firm knowledge of film (which, as we know, holds the secrets to all life’s mysteries). Continue reading

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NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY by William Goldman

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“What if there were two [Boston] stranglers, and one got jealous of the other?”

This was the germ for what would become William Goldman’s No Way to Treat a Lady, originally published in 1964 under the pseudonym ‘Harry Longbaugh’, the real name of the outlaw ‘The Sundance Kid’. Written in just 10 days this brief novel is 160 pages long and broken down into 53 chapters and is an exciting, blackly comic work reminiscent of the best of the Ed McBain thrillers of the time. Continue reading

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RUPTURE by Simon Lelic

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Simon Lelic was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association’s John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for best debut novel in 2010 with this gripping account of a tragic shooting incident – but does it really belong in the genre at all?

Set in the aftermath of a killing spree in a London comprehensive, it follows the investigations of young female police officer Lucia May as she tries to make sense of an apparent act of insanity in the face of increasing resistance from her superiors and colleagues. Samuel Szajkowski one morning walks in to an assembly and shoots and kills pupils and staff before turning the gun on himself. The novel, most of which is made up of transcripts of Lucia’s interviews with those touched by the crime including the families of the victims, initially comes across as a sort of police-procedural version of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin about a Columbine-style massacre, except that the setting is the UK and a teacher not a student did the killing. Continue reading

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Did Agatha Chrisitie invent the ‘Giallo’ genre?

In Italy ‘giallo’ is the word for yellow but in common parlance there is often used as a shortcut for thrillers and detective stories, mainly because a popular imprint chose that colour for the covers of a series of mystery novels in the 1930s – its nearest equivalent is the French ‘Serie Noire’ in the 1940s, which was a label for a series of dark hardboiled thrillers and which influence the use of the term ‘Film noir’ to similarly dark crime movies. Continue reading

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Pastiche is sweet

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In his 2010 book (‘novel’ just seems too inadequate a term somehow) And Then There Was No One, ironist supreme Gilbert Adair includes himself as the main character in the third and last of his pastiches featuring his ex-spinster novelist-cum-detective … Continue reading

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20 mystery books to read before dying

Over at the Mrs Peabody Investigates blog there is a discussion on the list of 20 great crime and mystery novels generated by John Connelly and Declan Hughes. Listmaking is one of life’s great joys, as is the opportunity to attempt to counter and redact other people’s lists – so here is my reposte.

In strict chronological order, here’s my score of today and I’m glad to say that keeping it to only 20 was just impossible … so it’s really 26! I’ve kept more recent titles to a minimum to give posterity a chance to percolate, although Stieg Larsson and his pulpy entertainments were never going to make it here.

    Continue reading

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