The Queen of fear

I recently drove down to Cornwall for a short break and decided I would read a novel connected to the local area. The hotel being located between two moors gave me the choice of The Hound of the Baskervilles, based on the legend of haunted Dartmoor in neighbouring Devon, or Jamaica Inn, located on Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall.

As I had passed the Jamaica Inn so many times along the A30 when visiting Cornwall, I thought it was high time to read Daphne du Maurier’s novel after being put off from doing so by Hitchcock’s film.

Published in 1936, it was her fourth novel and most successful up to that point, selling more copies in the first three months than her first three books combined. It established her as a serious novelist and led to her becoming one of the highest earning female authors in the UK in the 1950s.

She was only 29 when she wrote Jamaica Inn, a historical novel set in 1820 about wreckers and smugglers in Cornwall. Mary Yellan, the 23-year-old heroine, is forced to live with her aunt at the Jamaica Inn after her mother dies and discovers fairly quickly that it is run by a violent drunk smuggler who’s married to her aunt. Slowly, she learns of the dark secrets of the tavern, a thieves’ lair, where wagon loads of contraband are brought there in the middle of the night for hiding.

To Mary’s horror her Uncle Joss is the supposed head of the smuggling ring and she suspects he murdered, with the help of a mystery man, one of his co-smugglers who wanted out. Perhaps also to her horror, she finds herself falling in love with Jem, the younger brother of Joss who is a petty horse thief.

She wants to run away from the tavern but not without taking her poor aunt with her and turns to a vicar for help in a nearby village. But when her uncle in a drunken stupor confesses being a wrecker and murdering men, women and children, victims of the wrecked ships, she needs to escape. The vicar turns out not to be her saviour, but instead the mystery man and mastermind of the smuggling and wrecking venture.

Du Maurier is often mistakenly described as a romantic novelist, but nothing could be further from the truth as her work deals with much deeper subjects that are not normally associated with the genre. Neither in my opinion is Jamaica Inn a gothic romance as claimed on the back cover of my book and I would not necessarily compare it either to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, as some have done.

Enthusiasts of Du Maurier claim that the inspiration for Jamaica Inn came from her childhood interest to write an adventure story in the style of Treasure Island. She had once stayed at the Jamaica Inn and became interested in the tales of smuggling after becoming lost on Bodmin moor with her horse.

But her story is about male abuse of women, threats of rape and gang rape, murders, drunkenness, hostage-taking and even has a shootout at the end. A swashbuckling romance, it is not. There is indeed a lot of anger in the writing from the perspective of Mary Yellan, who has attitude and is never intimidated, not even by her seven foot giant of an uncle, a natural born killer. Mary Yellan doesn’t take any nonsense from men who are always trying to control her in some way. She’s smarter than them and knows to take her time. Her one goal is to remain independent of men and run her own farm one day, although Du Maurier does give ground on this narrative with a compromised ending.

The structure and content of the book reads more like a crime novel although with an unconventional setting. If placed in a contemporary setting with the uncle being a drug dealer and Mary Yellan plotting to escape him it would have all the makings of a traditional thriller.

Du Maurier wrote Jamaica Inn at a time when the hard-boiled detective novels were just beginning to entertain American readers. But she didn’t have to look at the trends taking place across the Atlantic for inspiration. Her stock-in-trade was creating an environment of fear and she often found it within the confines of her beloved Cornwall. Her following book, Rebecca (See also, September 23, 2016), set on the Cornish coast was to become her most accomplished work, again wrongly labelled for many years as a gothic novel, but now regarded as an exceptional psychological thriller.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

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Parker – the steamroller

One of my favourite anti-heroes is Parker, the early sixties creation of Donald E. Westlake, who wrote a series of novels about the hard-boiled criminal under the name of Richard Stark.

Parker, a vicious man of few words and no remorse, doesn’t let anyone stand in his way and destroys any obstacle he comes up against.

He’s a sociopath who you would oddly want on your side, although Parker only has one side, his own. But the reader doesn’t mind and roots for him all the same.

Westlake’s introduction of Parker to the reader initially came in 1959 and appeared in several short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Then in 1962 he wrote the first Parker novel, The Hunter, later retitled Point Blank in the 1967 film with Lee Marvin playing the lead.

Within the opening paragraphs of the novel, the reader understands he’s angry as hell, doesn’t give a damn and is attractive to women who recognise him immediately as being “a bastard”. All of these observations are made while Parker is marching across New York’s George Washington Bridge in early morning rush hour. In fact, Westlake’s opening for Parker was inspired after he took the same walk across the bridge.

Westlake started putting pen to paper when he was a teenager and turned to full-time writing in 1960 when he was 27. He thought he could make additional money by writing paperbacks for the male market and chose the penname Stark to reflect his economical prose where style and story are stripped down for a racy read. His choice of Richard as a first name came from his favourite actor at the time, Richard Widmark.

When he started writing The Hunter in 1962 he thought it would only be a standalone novel because he held the view that bad guys always lose and Parker ends up arrested. But his editor had different ideas and told him that if Parker could escape custody he would have a series on his hands. He went on to publish over 20 Parker books with the final one being written just before his death in 2008.

Parker has attracted many filmmakers to produce their versions of the character and story, but Westlake never gave them permission to use the name of Parker because there was a reticence in allowing them to depict their own vision of his character. In the case of Point Blank, Lee Marvin was given the name of Walker, not Parker, while in the 1973 film, The Outfit, Robert Duvall’s character was called Macklin. Incidentally, Westlake said he preferred Duvall’s representation of Parker to Marvin’s.

Westlake was an accomplished screenwriter and his excellent script for the 1990 film The Grifters, based on a Jim Thompson novel, was nominated for an Academy Award. He also wrote the screenplay, The Stepfather, based on a story he’d co-written, which led to two sequels and a remake.

Westlake was a prolific author with more than 100 books published under various pseudonyms. He was versatile and humorous in his work, creating formidable plots and quick-fire dialogue. Under his real name he wrote comic capers about the hapless criminal character, John Dortmunder, first introduced in Bank Shot in 1972 and turned into a film with George C. Scott two years later. Dortmunder was the opposite to Parker and Westlake once said he enjoyed switching between the two characters to keep the ideas fresh.

During his career Westlake won three Edgar Awards, and a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master title, the highest honour bestowed by the society.

His only regret about Parker was his name. If he’d known it was going to become a series he would have given the character a first name as well to avoid looking for alternative ways of saying, “Parker parked the car”.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Montalbano’s final curtain call

Fans of Inspector Montalbano will have one final novel to savour before saying farewell to the likeable commissario following the recent death of the Italian author, Andrea Camilleri. The grand finale for the inspector was written by the Sicilian years ago, but kept under lock and key by his publisher for the day he either got fed up with the character or was no longer able to write any more.

One could guess Salvo Montalbano’s end. A bust-up with his cretinous superiors leads to his resignation and him opening a trattoria somewhere on the Aeolian Islands where he can end his days eating to his heart’s content. We will all have to wait patiently to see his fate.

Camilleri was a late bloomer in crime writing. He wrote the first book in the Montalbano series when he was 69, and went on to write 30 more novels until his death in July at the age of 93. About 10m of his novels have been sold around the world, boosted by the popular TV series sold in 20 countries. In addition, he wrote 60 other books, writing well into his 80s.

For much of his life he was a theatre and TV director and early in his career he specialised in plays by the Nobel laureate, Luigi Pirandello, a relation. For the Italian national broadcasting company, RAI, his early works included directing Inspector Maigret, the French police detective created by Georges Simenon, who later became an influence on his writing.

In the late 1970s, Camilleri, a one-time poet, self-published a novel after failing to find a publisher. It didn’t sell well. Another novel followed in the 1980s and it too flopped. For a left-wing intellectual like Camilleri, who now was in his mid-50s, this could not have been easy to accept, especially after his friend, the renowned Sicilian author, Leonardo Sciascia, once told him he was wasting his time with his latest manuscript.

Another decade past and now in his late 60s his third book, La Stagione della caccia, an historical novel, did rather well. But as his 70th birthday was approaching he published in 1994 The Shape of Water, the first Inspector Montalbano mystery, set in fictional Vigata, but in reality, Porto Empedocle, his place of birth on the western coast of Sicily.

It was an immediate success in Italy despite being written in a quirky mixture of Italian and Sicilian dialect, a technique of his own making.

There was nothing particularly innovatory about Inspector Montalbano, the freewheeling detective who constantly rails against the establishment. Even the traits of the gourmet investigator were borrowed from the character of the Spanish private detective, Pepe Carvalho, written by the Catalan author, Manuel Vazquez Montalban. As a tribute to the writer, Camilleri, named his own detective after him.

But what was new to readers were his stories of mostly local folk getting into complicated messes that only Montalbano could unravel. There was a casualness to his plots that appealed to many with no one really knowing in which direction the story was heading until the eighteenth chapter when everything is resolved. All of his novels are divided into 18 chapters.

He only touched upon the mafia in his books as secondary characters as he never wanted to glamorise them in the same way they were depicted in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. But his novels did cover fascism, something he fought against most of his life as an outspoken critic.

When he was young his early poetry won national prizes and he went on to study stage and film in Rome. He became used to his literary novels being rejected over almost a life time until he hit upon the crime genre where he could express his political views to a mass audience. And once he found his feet at a time when most people that age are planning their retirement homes, he excelled, and not even near blindness in his later years could stop him from writing as he would turn to dictating his books.

When Inspector Montalbano takes his last bow, let’s remember the long journey he took to reaching readers and viewers alike and the author who never gave up.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

The F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime writing

Kenneth Millar, better known under his pen name of Ross Macdonald, is largely recognised for scaling new heights in crime novel writing in the middle of the last century because of his finesse in handling the genre.

Born in California in 1915, but raised in Canada, he began writing in 1939 after being inspired by the success of his wife, Margaret Sturm, the mystery writer who wrote under the name of Margaret Millar.

They lived in Santa Barbara, California, for the remainder of their lives, and it became the setting for his Lew Archer character, a divorced former cop-turned private eye, in post-war Los Angeles.

Archer displayed all the traits of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as a wisecracking PI crusading against the bad and the ugly, but in a later era. In fact, so inspired by Hammett, he took the name for his protagonist from Spade’s murdered partner Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon.

Even the themes were familiar as he wrote about the idle rich, bad marriages and dysfunctional offspring. But for the author, who’d gained a PhD in literature, his real ambition was to become one day a serious writer under his own name.

And yet, ironically, he fulfilled his dream under his nom de plume with literary critics hailing him for blending a “whodunit” with a psychological thriller with such great aplomb.

Macdonald began to surpass his two famous predecessors when his hardboiled thrillers gave way to a retelling of Greek myths based on a modern Californian narrative about family secrets, childhood traumas and skeletons in the cupboard. He once told Newsweek that he owed this transformation in his work to seeing a therapist, claiming that Freud was an important influence on his newfound voice. Turning tragedies of ordinary life into potboilers became his signature theme.

Though the early Archer series were well written, including his first, The Moving Target (1949), it wasn’t until after his epiphany on the psychiatrist couch, when he wrote The Galton Case (1959), that he came into his own, writing about his personal life experiences. Archer becomes the conduit in piecing together the story of lives of others. While some critics complained that from that moment onwards he ended up reworking and rewriting the same novel, others claim that he was clever enough to keep unearthing something new in every version. It would be another 10 years with the publication of The Goodbye Look that he was finally rewarded with the critical accolades he’d craved for when starting out as a serious writer.

Many have written about the Holy Trinity of American crime writers of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald, but it was the latter who became the most academically respected. He also wrote more books than Hammett and Chandler combined with the Archer series totalling 18. Although Hammett created the PI genre, and Chandler perfected it, Macdonald pushed the crime novel into new directions.

Like Hammett and Chandler, he had critical success also in Hollywood with Paul Newman starring in both Harper (1966), based on The Moving Target, and later The Drowning Pool (1975).

Chandler didn’t take to the newcomer and described his prose as strained and pretentious. The feeling may have been mutual as Macdonald thought Chandler’s work lacked “tragic unity”. As a Dashiell Hammett fan, I could not comment. Hammett’s writing is pure and economical, while Chandler cuts clean and creates scenes that remain in a reader’s memory forever. Macdonald is silky and true to the traditions of Hammett and Chandler. In fact, he gave a new lease of life to the genre, just as his predecessors had done in their respective periods.

Was it such a coincidence that Hammett’s first PI novel hit the bookshelves in 1929, Chandler’s in 1939 and Macdonald’s in 1949? Was it not the sharp eye of the same publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, recognising what readers wanted from each author and shrewdly nudging the genre along in keeping with the time?

Macdonald’s books are written so elegantly that he was admired by poets as his stories were from the heart, and to describe him as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime writers would not be an overstatement as Fitzgerald was an author that had greatly inspired him.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Hoping for a big thriller year

Last year proved to be a relatively quiet 12 months for the thriller market in terms of blockbusters. The publishing industry did its utmost to meet readers’ interests by offering the usual plethora of subgenres but there was no stand-out thriller as in previous years.

The ever popular domestic noir market still looks as strong as ever following the runaway successes of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and later Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.

This subgenre has seen in recent years an exponential growth in interest as it changed the reading habits of many women who are preferring to seek out female-centric titles that keep them on the edge of their seats.

Women form the majority of thriller readers and their surge in interest in domestic noir has built up sales in the UK market of around 20m books per year.

This type of crime fiction is not only changing the psychological makeup of women in novels, but is possibly challenging the traditional narratives of the thriller.

The use of multiple narrators, a general absence of typical thriller tropes, and their softer climaxes seem to be altering the perspective of what is chilling, given that the stories often revolve around humdrum urban lives.

But framing a story around terrible marriages and abusive relationships is nothing new to the thriller market. It is a deeply mined subject of the traditional psychological thriller. Rebecca, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Dial M for Murder are all examples of the subgenres popularity in earlier decades.

Perhaps the real difference between the older classics and the modern domestic noir, is, as others have already pointed out, that the investigation being carried out by the writer is really about the breakdown of the relationship rather than the murder itself. The murder is no more than a McGuffin.

Money and control are often at the heart of a thriller, and it is no different in domestic noir. The woman is invariably dependent on a husband who is unfaithful and she feels her position becoming suddenly vulnerable because the man poses a threat.

But unlike the archetypically doomed femme fatales of the past – written mostly by men – the female characters in domestic noir tend to end up coming out on top. They are no longer the victims.

Amy in Gone Girl manages to get the upper hand, Jodi, a psychologist, in The Silent Wife, gets away with despatching her philandering partner, while in Season to Taste, dear Lizzie Prain has no qualms in eating her husband.

The thriller market has always been the golden goose for publishers, film makers, theatre and radio producers, alike. Nearly everyone from all backgrounds enjoys being transferred to an edgy world where they can be frightened or held in suspense.

It is an organic genre that keeps evolving and sub-dividing into subgenres. How long domestic noir will remain popular is anyone’s guess. This trend will no doubt reach a limit amongst readers and will probably give way one day to a new vogue in crime fiction, in the same way that Nordic noir thrillers are now starting to lose their shine.

Could the absence of a big blockbuster in 2017 be a sign of uncertainty about the direction that the thriller market is currently heading? Even in the cinema it seems to me that fewer traditional thrillers are being made. Is there some uncertainty about what people really want from a thriller today as there is so much competition from other genres?

A relatively fallow year for crime fiction doesn’t mean anything, of course, as the whole of the book market goes through such trends from time to time. While it is not a rare phenomenon it does seem curious that there was no real big splash in the thriller market last year given the huge number of books in the marketplace.

Too much choice? Not enough book critics in the media shining their torches on hidden gems? I have no idea how publishing houses pick and choose books, but as a consumer of their products I would urge them to go out on a limb and just take more risks.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Life can be murder for Martin

The time has come to let you know about my new book. For readers seeking an unusual hero to root for, then step forward, Martin, a hapless journalist who works on a London-based financial magazine.

Martin desperately wants to tell you his side of the story about how the blue-eyed new boy, Tom de Lacy, turned up one day in the newsroom, and ended up grabbing all of the limelight, not to mention the well-paid industrial correspondent’s job that he had his eye on.

Once he lost out to Tom, life was never quite the same for him but I’ll let him tell you all about that. If only Martin could match Tom and his amazing elevation into television. If only he too could be, well, a bit like Tom really, someone whose ability was admired by all and sundry.

And it wasn’t an impossibility as he was every much Tom’s equal in journalism. But keeping a job and remaining solvent can be murder, and in certain circumstances could even give rise to it.

Watching Tom’s career blossom wasn’t easy for Martin, so when a really unexpected turn of events occurs, he just had to grab the opportunity with both hands.

But I’ll let Martin tell you how he got into trouble. Just go on to Amazon and pre-order his story now. It’s called, SCOOP OF THE YEAR.

Available in paperback or e-book:

Amazon UK: http://tinyurl.com/y7zwqmqc

Amazon US: http://tinyurl.com/ycyhcx5w

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Deighton returns to the silver screen

Len Deighton, who turned 88 this month, is enjoying a revival of interest in his work as filmmakers are turning to his books again for inspiration.

A five-part mini-series based on his 1978 novel SS-GB is about to be aired by the BBC, and there has been talk for some while of the nine Bernard Samson novels – Deighton’s magnum opus – being adapted for television as well.

SS-GB is a counter-factual history adventure set in 1941 Britain where the Nazis have taken occupation. Deighton, a highly respected writer on military history, penned the novel after carrying out painstaking research on Hitler’s occupation plans, speaking to German army generals and senior SS officers.

It provides an exciting backdrop for a murder investigation by Scotland Yard detective, Douglas Archer, who uncovers a terrible truth at the heart of the British puppet government under Nazi rule.

The world renowned author claims that he never wanted to be a writer,  but a chance introduction with the literary agent, Johnathan Clowes, turned jottings made while on holiday into The Ipcress File. This was 1962, the same year of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, and a year before John le Carre published The Spy Who came in from the Cold.

The three British masters of the spy novel were about to start vying on the silver screen. But while Ian Fleming’s James Bond won hands down in general public appeal the world over, Deighton and le Carre’s anti-heroes proved the perfect antidote to those filmgoers who hated the glamorous fantasy world of 007.

Harry Saltzman, who made Dr.No, had the good sense to hedge his bets about what the paying public wanted from their British spy and produced The Ipcress File in 1965, offering  the sharp witted cockney Michael Caine as an alternative to the smooth talking Sean Connery.

The film helped to launch Deighton’s career as a major author, and more spy novels followed, including many books featuring the jaded middle-aged MI6 spy, Bernard Samson. In the 1970s he wrote Fighter, an account of the Battle of Britain, as well as deeply researched novels about the Second World War, including Bomber, and SS-GB.

His historical non-fiction has also been highly praised over the years, despite being criticised for interviewing German veterans at a time when the only point of view of the war was from that of the allies.

He also found time to become travel editor of Playboy while also writing and producing the film version of Oh! What a lovely War.

But his real passion in life was cooking, taught to him while growing up in London by his mother who was cook by profession. As a trained illustrator he also drew cartoon strips based on recipes for The Observer. Cooking books followed, including Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, Basic French Cooking, and, ABC of French Food.

Before becoming an illustrator after studying at London’s top art schools, he spent 30 months in RAF intelligence during his National Service, followed by a stint as a railway clerk, a BOAC steward, and a press photographer.

In total he wrote 27 novels, 11 miscellaneous works including films and television scripts, and 16 non-fiction books. Several of his works have been adapted for screen, three starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, and a Granada Television mini-series starring Ian Holm as Bernard Samson.

But the success in his early career was to some extent helped greatly by his good friend Michael Caine who personified the working class hero probably better than the author could have ever created in The Ipcress File. Deighton admits he had no idea why he made the unnamed hero, who narrates the story in the book, a northerner, and supposes that it may have been his way of disguising the fact that he was a Londoner who spoke with a cockney accent.

Caine restored the balance by making the spy a cockney, and by also giving him a name for the audience. He was looking for the most common sounding name possible, starting with Saltzman’s first name. Caine brought Deighton’s hero to life, capturing both the time and mood of the 1960s. Deighton’s book was seen at the time as fresh and different largely because of the way the hero was insubordinate to his often untrustworthy superiors. In truth, this was a return to the wisecracking Philip Marlowe only with a cockney accent. A hero with his own code of ethics.

The success of The Ipcress File caught Deighton by surprise as he instantly shot to global fame. But he was not the only one surprised by his immediate success; his publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, had restricted the print order to only 4,000 books and were sold out in just a couple of days.

He claims he never had any intense literary ambitions despite being a voracious reader since childhood thanks to the encouragement of his father who was a chauffeur and mechanic. But luckily for us he decided to swap his day job as an illustrator to become one of Britain’s finest writers in the spy genre.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

My favourite gumshoe

When it comes to detective stories there is only one writer, and one book, for that matter, that hits all the buttons. The writer is Dashiell Hammett, and his book, The Maltese Falcon.

As a teenager I enjoyed Raymond Chandler and his wisecracking PI, Philip Marlowe. Nothing could surpass him, I thought at the time, for enjoyment in detective fiction. But that all changed when in later life I read Hammett’s The Thin Man, and then the mother of all detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon.

Up to that point, I didn’t think Chandler could ever be possibly dethroned in my head. But after casting my eyes over The Thin Man, considered a lightweight novel, compared to Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, I realised how wrong I was.

The Thin Man, which was the last of his five published novels, also happened to be a very thin book indeed. But that is the beauty of his writing. He was so efficient in his prose that the story revolves around a few characters in walking distance of each other. There is humour and a general ease in style that makes it effortless to read again and again and again. The husband and wife team of Nick and Nora Charles and their witty banter led to a spate of films and set a blueprint for comedy between the sexes ever since.

And when I thought it couldn’t get any better I browsed The Maltese Falcon in a small London bookshop during a lunch break and forgot to return to the office. These are the most cherished moments in finding that right book that fits you. Time just seems to stand still when they get into your hands.

The Maltese Falcon marked a step-change in detective fiction. Its hardboiled style and darker approach to crime, dragged readers away from the cosy upper-class detectives created by mystery writers from the Golden Age. The British whodunits were being passed over for the grittier American urban crime thriller where the hero was working class.

Hammett’s Sam Spade, the dry-witted gumshoe, would a decade later turn into the more defined Philip Marlowe created by Chandler. Both characters would become the template for all future pulp fiction private detectives until they were eventually replaced by cops in police procedural thrillers.

The Maltese Falcon had the requisite MacGuffin, a femme fatale, crooked chancers, and of course a hero with his own code of ethics straight from the Knights of the Round Table. The plot is linear and not overly complicated, unlike those of Chandler’s, and there is humour too. But it is the directness of his writing, using a third person point-of-view, which allows the action to speak.

Of course, Hammett had one advantage over Chandler in that he had been a real detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, although not much is known about his job there. Hammett, certainly had a harder upbringing than Chandler, having to leave school at 13. Both were born in the US with unreliable fathers, but Chandler thanks to his Irish mother was classically educated at Dulwich College in London, a private school whose pupils included the authors P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester.

Chandler published his first novel The Big Sleep in 1939, introducing Philip Marlowe some nine years after Hammett’s Sam Spade. But the detective’s first person narration brought more immediacy in his story as well as more scope for humour and style.

Farewell, My Lovely followed a year later and soon Marlowe was hitting the big time on the silver screen. It was not long before Chandler turned his hand to scriptwriting, just as Hammett had done many years earlier.

His self-styled similes became his stock-in-trade as a writer and brought him much admiration in the literary world, something that was less apparent in the UK with regards to Hammett’s work.

The British-based Crime Writers’ Association ranked The Maltese Falcon at No.10 out of the top 100 crime books, while placing Chandler’s The Big Sleep at No.2 and Farewell, My Lovely at No.7. But the Mystery Writers of America ranked The Maltese Falcon as the best of all time mysteries, ahead of Chandler. Over the years, the US association has ranked Hammett’s book at No.1 or No.2.

Hammett’s influence is everywhere from Chandler to Le Carré, to Elmore Leonard and even Len Deighton. While he may not have been the first writer to create a hard-boiled detective, he was innovative and original, justifying his classic status.

My only gripe with Hammett was that he gave Sam Spade only one outing in full-length fiction. That was a very mean thing to do in my book.

 

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

It’s no laughing matter

One of the main gripes of the author behind the popular ITV detective series, Grantchester, is that the producers take out all of the jokes from the novels on which the show is based upon.

James Runcie, son of Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is the author of Grantchester Mysteries, six novels about a crime-fighting vicar, stretching over a twenty-year period starting from the 1950s.The novels have been adapted for television, starring James Norton and Robson Green.

The author told an audience at the recent Crimefest in Bristol that the jokes are stripped from the novels by producers because they are trying to get a varied tone on the television show. “It needs to be truncated to fit the allotted time, and the jokes come out,” he explained.

Runcie made his remarks during a panel session to illustrate the current plight of the comic crime fiction writer.

The sad fact of the matter is that there is no money in comic fiction writing in Britain, forcing writers to quit the subgenre altogether.

Runcie said that writers get paid more for scaring people than making them laugh. Yet there is black humour when crime goes wrong, he pointed out. “Even at funerals when families come together they say the wrong thing at the wrong time, but there is a loving humanity about it,” he said. However, a novel with no humour would probably be less sympathetic to the subject, in his opinion.

“Comedy is always considered flippant, but it’s harder to be funny than sombre,” he went on to tell the audience. “A world without humour is not worth living.”

The television and radio comedy writer, Nev Fountain, who has recently moved into serious thriller writing with his new book Painkiller, agrees that there is humour in every aspect of tragedy, sometimes involuntary.

“Spike Milligan’s war diaries are dark and the funniest parts are when the soldiers are together and talking about death,” he told the audience. “Humour shows intelligence. It’s not difficult to switch to writing serious books because when you write dialogue, you just leave the jokes out.”

Fountain maintains that while it is easy to write revulsion and horror, it is far more difficult to write comedy banter. The only must in such writing, he says, is to take death seriously, and making sure it does not turn into a pantomime.

While there appears to be only room for a few comic fiction writers in the market, there seems to be no limit to the number of writers in serious crime fiction, he says.

Ruth Dudley Edwards, whose satirical crime novels targets academia, the civil service, the House of Lords and the Church of England, says the lot of a funny writer, is not funny. She agrees there is no money to be made in comic fiction, which she thinks is strange when there is demand for the genre.

She asked the audience why readers didn’t want to pay for it. Clearly, the audience did want to pay for it, judging by their positive response. Their only problem is that they can’t find it in the bookshops.

At least that seems the experience in Britain, because in the US it is not too difficult to find crime fiction and TV crime shows with sprinklings of comic relief.

American writers of detective novels are given licence to crack jokes and have punch lines. They seem to have no reservations about mixing death and comedy.

British agents and publishers are wary of taking on manuscripts with a sliver of humour as they think it is risky because humour is open to interpretation.

Cosy mysteries series from the UK in fact do well in the US, and the jokes on shows like Vera are understood on the other side of the pond.

Humour can also be used to great effect to offset the grimness in many books. In fact, a hilarious dialogue can sometimes save a book or a film. And who doesn’t like film noir with wise-cracks? The trouble is finding the right balance.

British humour is renowned the world over and travels well like its rock music. It’s virtually a brand that tells its audience to prepare for rib-cracking laughter.

One of the major stumbling blocks about comic books, it is argued, is that written comedy is difficult to translate well. But in an increasingly English-speaking world, cultural references present translators with less problems than in the past, and one only has to look at the acceptance of Woody Allen in France to realise the divide is not so great.

That’s not to say there aren’t limits to how faithful a translator can be to the original text to get a chuckle. To cater for the humour-challenged Germans, the publishers of the German edition of James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries decided to tackle the problem head-on. Over a span of 20 pages it spelt out fully why his book should make them laugh. Now that’s hilarious, isn’t it?

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk