“In Name Only: Forgotten Authors” – a Crimefest panel discussion

July 30, 2011 at 12:05 pm (books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

I liked each of the panel discussions I attended at Crimefest; one that I particular enjoyed was entitled “In Name Only: Forgotten Authors.” Participants were Peter Guttridge, Caroline Todd, Sarah Rayne, and Adrian Magson. Martin Edwards served as participating moderator. The purpose of this panel was to recommend worthy crime fiction titles and authors of whom those in the audience may not have heard. First, here’s Martin Edwards making the introductions, while injecting some humor into the proceedings. (There was actually plenty of humor throughout the Crimefest events; it was a big part of what made the experience such fun.)

There were several authors whom I’d met before and was especially pleased to be seeing again at Crimefest in Bristol, England.. Martin Edwards, whose novels I very much enjoy and whose unfailingly gracious demeanor I appreciate, was one of them. (If you read Martin’s blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name, you’ll discover that he’s an enthusiastic reader and reviewer of “forgotten books.“)

Peter Guttridge led with John Frankliin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron, and engrossing and original work recently reviewed in this space. Caroline Todd – one half of the mother-son writing team known as Charles Todd – followed up with her own suggestions. Two were by William E. Barrett: The Left Hand of God and The Edge of Things. Another was The Yellow Room by George Shipway. After that, it was as if the flood gates had been opened: recommendations of authors and titles flowed fast and furiously from the panelists. It was evident that all were not only writers  but avid readers as well. And, I might add, outstanding book talkers; I pretty much wanted to read everything these enormously persuasive writers were urging on their listeners:

  One author I was especially curious about was George Shipway (1908-1982). I had trouble getting information about him until I found this article  by Alan Fisk. The piece appeared originally in Solander; I located it on Books and Bricks  and am grateful to the blogger for obtaining permission to place it there. (Stumbling upon Solander is one of the many instances of serendipity I experienced while doing research for this post. It’s a magazine that’s put out twice a year by the Historical Fiction Society.)

  In The Dolly Dolly Spy, Adam Diment (born in 1943) introduced a spy for the sixties: the pot-smoking skirt-chasing Philip McAlpine. Between 1967 and 1971, Diment wrote four novels featuring this rather unique character. Then both the protagonist and his creator dropped out of sight. Click here for a fuller treatment of the subject of Adam Diment, the crime writer who himself became something of a mystery.

R.C. Sherriff was an author I actually knew. He wrote a play called Journey’s End, in which he drew on his own experiences as a captain in World War One. First performed in London in 1928 and starring a rising young actor named Laurence Olivier,  it was an immediate hit and has gone on to become a classic. (I first encountered Journey’s End in a literature textbook in use in my English teaching days.)

   What I didn’t know is that R.C. Sherriff wrote numerous other plays, as well as film scripts and novels. One of the panelists – I don’t recall which one – recommended The Hopkins Manuscript, a scary-sounding apocalyptic tale published on the eve of the Second World War. Click here for a review.

Not much is known of the life of R.C. Sherriff. I was intrigued by this blurb for a BBC radio program about this author:

RC Sherriff wrote the play Journey’s End following his own experiences of the trenches in the First World War. Unflinching but deeply humane, it was a huge hit in the West End and a global export in some 26 languages. But the man who wrote it remains something of mystery, an insurance agent who lived quietly among the rolling lawns of Esher. Robert Gore-Langton tries to find out more.

Entitled “The Man From Esher and His Theatre of War,” the program aired in 2006.

  Some of the authors mentioned by the panelists have not been entirely forgotten because their books have been made into films or TV shows -or, as is the case with Leslie Charteris‘s Simon Templar, aka “The Saint,” both.   The film The Quiller Memorandum was based on the novel by Adam Hall. “Adam Hall” was the pseudonym of Elleston Trevor. More than one panelist expressed admiration for this author.

     The stellar cast of The Medusa Touch included Richard Burton, Lee Remick, and Derek Jacobi. The 1978 film was based on the novel by Peter Van Greenaway. Then there’s The Left Hand of God, written by William E. Barrett and made into a film in 1955 starring, of all people, Humphrey Bogart as the faux priest.

Martin Edwards mentioned that there are now several small presses dedicated to bringing works such as these back into print, in some cases using print on demand technology. Ostara Publishing is currently engaged in this undertaking, as is Rue Morgue Press .

Probably the most intriguing story I’ve come across in my labors regarding this post is that of a book called The Notting Hill Mystery. It was actually published as an eight part serial in a magazine called Once a Week. It began appearing in 1862 and was finally published as a novel in 1863. ( This edition of the work contained illustrations by George DuMaurier, grandfather of Daphne DuMaurier.) Charles Felix was the name ascribed to the author of The Notting Hill Mystery. This was obviously a pseudonym. Paul Collins, an academic and editor, announced in an article in the New York Times in January of this year that he had determined the identity of the actual author: Charles Warren Adams, sole proprietor of the firm that had published the book. (Collins was interviewed  by Scott Simon of NPR. Click here to listen to the interview or read the transcript.)

This novel is very highly thought of. The eminent critic Julian Symons declared that in the annals of detective fiction, The Notting Hill Mystery was far ahead of its time.


The Notting Hill Mystery can be viewed online in its original form.   Click here for the first installment. To access all parts, scroll down to the bottom of this Wikipedia entry. 

This article on the Forgotten Authors panel appeared in Shotsmag, an online Crime and Thriller e-zine.

The above mentioned titles are not easy to obtain. Most are out of print. The local library, not surprisingly, owns none of them. Here’s what I’ve done so far:

1. Requested via interlibrary loan The Paladin and The Imperial Governor by Goerge Shipway;
2. Ordered The Notting Hill Mystery from Amazon.

And yes – I’m hoping for another revelatory reading experience like the one I’ve just had with The Deadly Percheron

Author Gallery

Victor L. Whitechurch

Patricia Wentworth

William E. Barrett

George Shipway

R.C. Sherriff

Leslie Charteris

John Frankiln Bardin

Actor David Hemmings, left, and Adam Diment. Hemmings was slated to play Philip McAlpine in the film version of THe Dolly Dolly Spy. The film was never made.

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John Franklin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron; with thanks to Crimefest 2011 in general and Peter Guttridge in particular

July 24, 2011 at 6:05 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

Ah,yes: The Deadly Percheron.

The what?

A Percheron is a type of draft horse originating in the province of Le Perche, in France. An informative (and refreshingly poetical) piece on the breed’s history can be found on the site of The Percheron Horse Association of America. In Bardin’s novel, this animal – and I mean the real thing, not a picture representation or a stuffed toy- is used as a calling card, not once but twice, by a supremely cunning criminal.

First published in 1946, The Deadly Percheron takes place in New York City in the early 1940s. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Jacob Blunt was my last patient. He came into my office wearing a scarlet hibiscus in his curly blond hair. He sat down in the easy chair across from my desk, and said, ‘Doctor, I think I’m losing my mind.’

At first, I thought I was in for a lighthearted romp. I could not have been more wrong.

Jacob Blunt’s delusions, if delusions they be, are so fantastical that psychiatrist George Matthews feels a powerful urge to investigate them beyond the confines of his examining room. Jacob invites Dr. Matthews to accompany him back to his apartment, and thence, to a  bar. Driven by is curiosity, Matthews accedes to his new patient’s request.

At Jacob’s apartment, the doctor meets two young and lovely women. But this is just a brief stop on the way to the real destination: the bar, where according to Jacob, they will meet a leprechaun. When they reach their destination on Third Avenue, the doctor observes that “…a large van had been parked in front of the place–a truck with deep sides and screened windows near the roof of its storage space not unlike an oversize paddy wagon.” He wonders idly about the van’s contents but then forgets about it almost at once, so focused is he on what or whom he and Jacob are about to encounter.

Inside the bar is the “leprechaun.”

Inside the van is the Percheron.

From that point on, things become increasingly weird. Then suddenly George finds himself imprisoned in a nightmare scenario straight out of Kafka.

One of the best things about this novel is the author’s evocation of 1940s Manhattan. The establishment alluded to above is “the usual Third Avenue bar room with Rheingold neon signs in the windows and sawdust on the tile floor.” Coney Island also figures prominently in this narrative. Here’s a description of the clientele that typically patronize one of the island’s eateries in the late evening hours:

Brassy blondes, flashily made-up redheads, rarely a glossy headed brunette, showgirls, wives of entrepreneurs, lady shills…as well as their masculine counterparts in checked suits and pointed-toe shoes, barkers,  grifters who operated the ‘sucker’ games, pitchmen and the ‘big boys’ who owned the concessions.

The writing is excellent. I’d love to quote more of it, but it would be hard to do without giving too much of the plot away. My coming to this novel “cold” had a lot to do with how much I enjoyed it.

John Franklin Bardin was born in Cincinnati in 1916. In 1944 he moved to New York City, where in addition to writing novels, he worked as an advertising executive, journalist, and teacher. Click here for a short but informative biographical sketch provided by Centipede Press.


I had never heard of either John Franklin Bardin or his extraordinary novel before this past May. For me, one of the highlights of Crimefest 2011 was the panel discussion entitled “In Name Only: Forgotten Authors.” The first speaker in the group was novelist and critic Peter Guttridge. It was his enthusiastic recommendation that led me to read The Deadly Percheron.

I’ll have more to say about this panel discussion and about Crimefest in general in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, see if you can get your hands on this book.( It’s out of print, naturally; I think I got my copy, a Poisoned Pen Press reissue, from Abebooks.com.) Once you’ve got it, be prepared to be up late reading it. The Deadly Percheron may be the most compelling and thoroughly original novel I’ve  read so far this year. 

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Recent articles of interest

July 23, 2011 at 10:17 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers, Shakespeare)

First – This speaks for itself. I found it very moving:

“Site of Holy Ark Uncovered in Excavations of Great Synagogue in Vilnius”


John Granger is obviously a great proponent of the Harry Potter opus. But in “Imagining the World Without Harry Potter,” is he going a bit too far in crediting J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus with saving the habit of reading on Planet Earth? I’m not sure…. (As a great fan of crime fiction, I understand only too well the craving for story  that is ingrained in the human psyche.)

I myself have read only the first of the Harry Potter books – actually listened, to Jim Dale’s marvelous performance on audiobook. When I started the second, I found I was not inclined to go on with it. Nevertheless, I have great respect for Rowling’s achievement, and for the pleasure she’s given to so many readers.

At any rate, Granger’s article is provocative – especially when he castigates the likes of A.S. Byatt, Donald Bathelme, and John Barth – whose Sot Weed Factor I love, BTW – for disdaining the art of storytelling, preferring instead to bore readers senseless with their “literary experiments.”


I feel no ambivalence about Carol J. Adams’s delightful “Five Myths about Jane Austen.” This piece may precipitate yet another Jane Attack. I’ve already read through the entire canon twice; is Round Three in the offing, perhaps..? Revisiting these wonderful works via audiobook is a distinct possibility, I’d say!


And speaking of the canon,  Simon Schama, Britain’s gift to these shores, reminds us in this recent Newsweek article of the continuing – might one say, eternal? – relevance of Shakespeare to American life.


And finally, no one is going to accuse Harold Bloom of reticence in expressing his views on the Zeitgeist in general and  literature in particular. For example, the following appears in How To Read and Why (2000):

…Maupassant is the best of the really ‘popular’ story-writers, vastly superior to O. Henry (who could be quite good) and greatly preferable to the abominable Poe….

Whether Maupassant can make us see what we could never have seen without him, I very much doubt. That calls for the genius of Shakespeare, or of Chekhov.

That’s Maupassant damned with faint praise and Poe dismissed out of hand! Along with many others, I have a deep regard for the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Moreover, in the past year I’ve read a story – “Looking Back” – and a novel – A Life – both by Maupassant and both quite simply superb. I’ll have more to say about them in a later post.

When I found out that Harold Bloom had a new book out – The Anatomy of Influence – I was not sure that I wished to attempt it. But then, upon reading “3 Books on Literary Criticism” by Michael Lindgren,  I thought I might reconsider. This is mainly due to Lindgren’s quoting Bloom’s assessment of contemporary culture; namely, that it is racing “down the cliffs to intellectual suicide in the gray ocean of the Internet.”


In fairness, Harold Bloom wrote one of my all time favorite works of literary criticism:

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A book group discussion of Disturbing the Dead by Sandra Parshall (with an Agatha Christie digression)

July 19, 2011 at 6:16 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

  It’s disturbing, all right. The bones of two deceased persons are found on a Virginia mountaintop. They both turn out to have been women, and both were murder victims. Their remains cry out for justice; it is Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger’s job to secure it for them.

This is just the beginning of a long and complicated story, whose tentacles reach way back into the past. I’ll admit right away that I had trouble keeping the various family relationships straight. Yet I very much liked this book, for several reasons. Tom Bridger and the other main characters are fully fleshed out and completely believable. I cared very much about their respective fates. This was  especially true of Rachel Goddard, a veterinarian who has recently relocated to the small mountain community in Mason County, where the novel’s action takes place.  She has left Northern Virginia in order to escape a harrowing experience and a troubled relationship. There is growing feeling between her and Tom Bridger, but she’s reluctant to acknowledge it or act on it. This is not a particularly original plot premise – I wrote about it recently in regard to Andrew Taylor’s Lydmouth novels. Still, I’m happy each time I encounter a nascent love affair in a novel. This is especially true if, as in both the Lydmouth novels and Disturbing the Dead, the author has made me care about the characters.

The country may be a new and strange place for Rachel, but it is home for Tom Bridger. Tom is part Melungeon, and this distinctive ethnic group figures prominently in the novel. (Parshall includes a note about the Melungeon at the front of the book; nevertheless, some in our group wished there had been more on this somewhat mysterious, only half-understood subject.) According to Wikipedia, “Melungeon”

…is a term traditionally applied to one of a number of “tri-racial isolate” groups of the Southeastern United States, mainly in the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia, which includes portions of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and East Kentucky. Tri-racial describes populations thought to be of mixed European, sub-Saharan African, and Native American ancestry. Although there is no consensus on how many such groups exist, estimates range as high as 200.

Check out this Wikipedia entry for more information and some excellent external links.

Several in our group felt that they  also lacked crucial knowledge pertaining to Rachel Goddard. I felt that the information Parshall supplied concerning this character was sufficient, though it seemed to me that in the brief second chapter so much of her calamitous back story was revealed all at once that things were veering  dangerously toward melodrama.

I liked the way in which Louise kicked off our discussion. She asked each of us to state one aspect of the book that we liked, and one that we didn’t. Perhaps this was an especially effective device because only eight of us were present that evening. (Even so, by the time we got around to Carol, Person Number Seven, she lamented that the major points had been pretty well covered already!) If memory serves (and it doesn’t, always), everyone agreed that the writing in Disturbing the Dead was extremely good. Marge made the point that given the novel’s setting, in rural Virginia, the author did not expend as much effort as she might have in evoking a vivid sense of place. Several of us felt that the relationships among the characters were hard to keep straight, especially at the end, when everything comes together in a kind of crashing jumble.

There were a number of entertaining digressions  that occurred in the course of the discussion. Pauline, deeply immersed in several literature-related projects of her own, picked up on the subject of DNA testing currently being conducted among the Melungeon people by telling us about a recent book that has garnered tremendous praise from reviewers and has obviously made a deep impression on her: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

The subject of Agatha Christie came up, as it so often does, and I expressed my unhappiness concerning a recently televised version of The Pale Horse into which Miss Marple, played by Julia McKenzie, was inserted as the protagonist. The Pale Horse is a standalone; the protagonist is an historian named Mark Easterbrook. Let me first say that I haven’t seen the film in question. I’m something of a purist where Miss Marple is concerned: the only actress I desire to see in that role is Joan Hickson. Even so, I’m dismayed by this tinkering with the canon. The Pale Horse is one of Dame Agatha’s most singular achievements. In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran observes that there is, in this novel, “…a genuine feeling of menace over and above the usual whodunit element.” I could not agree more.* (An even more egregious example of messing about with the canon occurred in the film version of Cards on the Table. In that case, not only were plot elements disarranged but the entire Zeitgeist was violated. In May, when we were in Torquay, I mentioned this severely altered version to John Curran. His immediate response: “That was a travesty!”)

Thus far there are three entries in the Rachel Goddard series, with a fourth due out in September. Frances spoke with her usual eloquence about the first in the series, The Heat of the Moon. She said that this was a very different kind of book than Disturbing the Dead and a uniquely compelling novel. She made me want to read it.

I’ve often heard folks say that one of the reasons they like being in a book group because the experience serves as an introduction to books they would otherwise not know about or not have thought to read. Alas, speaking for myself, I tend to resent the coercive element, not to mention the medical aspect – “Read this – It’s good for you!” But in this case, I have to express my pleasure in Sandra Parshall’s fine novel, as well as my inclination to read more of her work. Thanks for this fine selection, Louise, and thanks as always to the Usual Suspects for an enjoyable and stimulating evening.

Sandra Parshall


*Another film was made of The Pale Horse in 1997. It starred among others Colin Buchanan, an actor whose work I’ve very much enjoyed in the Dalziel & Pascoe series. I’ve tried viewing this version of the Christie novel twice and, finding it strangely incoherent, have never been able to watch it all the way through. I don’t think Colin Buchanan was ideally cast as Mark Easterbrook. On the other hand, Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings in the earlier Poirot films) reads the book on CD beautifully and would, IMHO, have made an excellent Mark Easterbrook.

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Stagestruck, by Peter Lovesey

July 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

The horseshoe-shaped auditorium was in darkness. Its crimson, cream and gold decorations were just discernible, the silk panels, the gilded woodwork, garlands and crystal chandelier giving a sense of the antique theatre that this was, essentially no different from the interior known known to the actors who first played here in the reign of George III.

Peter Lovesey has delivered yet another surefire entertainment with Stagestruck. This time, Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond is faced with a particularly baffling crime – or rather series of crimes, all of which take place within the precincts of Bath’s storied Theatre Royal. The production being thus bedeviled is John Van Druten’s I Am a Camera, the play upon which the musical Cabaret is based. ( In the writing of this play, Van Druten in turn drew his inspiration from Christopher Isherwood‘s Berlin Stories, in particular “Goodbye to Berlin.”)

I did have some issues with this novel. One has to do with the way in which Lovesey makes use in the plot of the phenomenon of self-harming, or self-injury. Also, there’s a death that’s immediately presumed by the police to be a suicide. If I, the reader, know – or at least strongly suspect – that it was actually a murder, why don’t they? They’re the ones who are supposed to be brainy and skeptical regarding these matters!

Nevertheless, Peter Lovesey is an author who almost never disappoints, and he certainly didn’t disappoint me with Stagestruck. The novel is rich with the lore of the Bath Theatre in particular and British theatrical custom and practice in general. Peter Diamond himself is a complex and interesting character. He has managed to survive a devastating personal tragedy but finds that there are still  inner demons he must conquer in order to be the best policeman, indeed the best person, that he can be. Luckily, his efforts are aided by an exceptional team of officers, in particular the intuitive and feisty DC Ingeborg Smith. He also has the support and sympathy of his friend Paloma Kean, an expert on the period fashions often used in theatre and film.

Stagestruck provides liberal helpings of the sparkling dialog we’ve come to expect from this author. Here, Peter Diamond is attempting to gain entrance to a country house where a fundraising fete is in progress. He’s in search of  Francis Melmot, Chairman of the Theatre Trust and titular lord of the manor. But first he must get past that gentleman’s Dragon Lady of a mother, whom he initially mistakes for Melmot’s wife:

‘Is your husband on the premises?’
‘I hope not. He’s dead.’ She announced it as if talking about a felled tree, in the matter-of-fact tone of the well-raised Englishwoman.
There wasn’t anything adequate Diamond  could say, so he waited for her to speak again.
‘He shot himself in 1999. Six pounds, please.’

Stagestruck is a worthy successor to Skeleton Hill. I am deeply grateful to Peter Lovesey for this marvelous series of procedurals. I’ve also enjoyed two of Lovesey’s  standalones, Rough Cider and The Reaper. In addition, he’s the author of the Sargeant Cribb novels set in Victorian London. These last were memorably filmed. And now Janet Rudolph brings us word that the Peter Diamond books might also be brought to television. Promoters of Bath tourism would like to see this series do for Bath what Inspector Morse did so spectacularly for Oxford.

I say yes, YES! Oh thou tourism gurus, make the films, taking great care in the casting of Peter Diamond. Give us gorgeous visions of the city of Bath. Get Barrington Pheloung to do the music. I promise I’ll come to Bath, bring friends, and spend lots of money!

In Stagestruck, Peter Lovesey pays a nice tribute to the Morse films. It occurs when Dr. Sealy, the pathologist, has been summoned to perform his dolorous duties. He’s very put out because when the call came, he’d been in the midst of watching an Inspector Morse film he’d not previously seen:

‘Give me strength! This is the real bloody thing,’ Diamond said.
‘Without the culture.’
‘Do you want me to hum the Morse music?’
‘Frankly, old boy, if you sang the whole of Die Meistersinger, it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.’

Peter Lovesey

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Andrew Taylor and Speech House, Revisited

July 13, 2011 at 11:53 am (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

One of the special pleasures of our recent tour was once again seeing Andrew Taylor at Speech House in the Forest of Dean. The year may have been 2011, but the author and the venue were the same as in 2006:

Andrew Taylor and our Blue Badge Guide extraordinaire Roz Hutchinson at Speech House in 2006. Seated across from Roz is our witty and erudite lecturer, Carol Kent.

Upon seeing me, Andrew Taylor expressed his gratitude for the (extremely favorable) review of The Anatomy of Ghosts that I posted in this space in April. As soon as I recovered from my delighted surprise, I assured him that the praise was well deserved.

  Before we sat down to luncheon, Peter Hands, Speech House’s new owner, gave us a brief history of the place. He proved to be a fine raconteur as well as a genial and welcoming host.

After lunch, it was Andrew Taylor’s turn to speak. He began with the story of a true crime: the poisoning of one Harry Pace. The crime occurred in Coleford, in the Forest of Dean, in 1928. But before getting very far into this macabre tale, Taylor warned us that the Forest of Dean was a strange place, bound as it was by the Severn estuary and the River Wye. Some incomers who intended to take up residence there found themselves so unnerved by the place that they could not stay. One gets “the sense of an enclosed world.” It’s a quality Taylor finds ideal for the setting of crime fiction.

Harry Pace, a sheep breeder, was by all accounts a nasty piece of work. Among other depredations he abused his wife, the small, pretty Beatrice. In May of 1927, Harry visited his doctor complaining of his severe stomach pains. His symptoms strongly indicated arsenic poisoning. Arsenic was, at the time, a common household item; moreover, it was used in sheep dips. Was it possible that Harry’s walrus mustaches, acting as wicks, had drawn the substance up toward his mouth while he was working at the sheep dip?

Such was the speculation at the time. And yet, Elton Pace, Harry’s brother, had  seen Beatrice lying athwart the body of her agonized husband and exclaiming, “Harry, Harry, you be dying!” Indeed he was, and did, and she was brought to trial for his murder. The damning testimony of Harry’s brother might have been fatal to Beatrice. But she looked so lovely and appealing, sitting there in the dock…

Beatrice Pace, in the late 1920s

Beatrice went free. Outside the courtroom, her brother-in-law and his family were set upon by the townspeople. They were outraged by the words spoken in defense of Harry, whom they knew full well had been a  reprobate and a terrible husband.*

Andrew Taylor drew a very interesting conclusion from this tale of cruelty and retribution. It illustrates, he said, “a quirky and local” form of justice, administered by people who knew the parties involved and knew the truth of the matter. He was not, of course, advocating vigilante justice. Rather, he was making the point that in former times, where the administration of justice was concerned, the sensibility of the local community counted for something. This stands in stark contrast to the present time, where the meting out of justice has attained a generalized, if not mechanized, quality, primarily because of advances in forensic science and the increasingly bureaucratic nature of law enforcement.

Taylor is of the opinion that both writers and readers are dismayed by these developments. We prefer novels and stories that deal with characters that seem real to us. We want to observe what happens to them they are placed under extreme duress. (As he was articulating this point, I thought of Ruth Rendell. Her mastery of just this kind of situation is, in my view, unparalleled.)

Taylor went on to describe the process of researching the post World War Two era for his Lydmouth series. This delving and digging transported him to a different world. Not only was the past proving to be a foreign country – it was proving to be an alien one as well. Taylor discovered a mindset that was radically different from that of the present time – and not, he assured us, just because everyone smoked! People’s ideas about right and wrong were very different, especially where sex was concerned.

Lydmouth – a conflation of Lydney and Monmouth – provides the setting for a series featuring Detective Inspector Richard Thornhill and reporter Jill Francis. Thornhill is married with children, but his relations with his wife are strained. Adding to the stress is the fact that the family  are”incomers”: a new position in the police force has brought them to Lydmouth. When Richard Thornhill and Jill Francis meet, a sympathetic connection, palpable though barely acknowledged, is established. But the obstacles to any relationship they might desire to have with each other are formidable. Taylor assured us that in those days, a policeman’s  career would never have survived the scandal of an extra-marital affair.

Taylor has conceived the Lydmouth series as a portrait of a community in a time of change. As for the love story, he conceded that he had no idea how it would ultimately turn out.

   I first read An Air That Kills in 2006. I remembered liking it a great deal. When I learned that we’d be seeing Andrew Taylor again, I re-read the novel. liking it even more the second time. I recently finished the second in the series, The Mortal Sickness. I just can’t recommend the Lydmouth novels strongly enough:  the sense of place, the compelling nature of the crimes, the equally compelling characters, the  beauty of the writing – all are superb. (And the fact that they remain out of print here is most frustrating.)

Andrew Taylor is the author of another series, the Roth Trilogy, which was dramatized and shown on British television in 2007. He also write standalone historical novels, three of which I have read and greatly enjoyed: An Unpardonable Crime (titled The American Boy in the UK), Bleeding Heart Square, and most recently The Anatomy of Ghosts.    

Taylor is currently working on a novel set in New York during the time of the Revolution. It’s about shifting loyalties and loyalties put to the test by seismic political events – like the Revolution. The working title, perhaps not surprisingly, is The Loyal American.

Returning to a theme he’d touched on earlier, Taylor lamented the mechanization of contemporary life in general and of crime fiction in particular. There is a danger, he warned, of crime fiction’s becoming dehumanized by the increasing emphasis on forensics and electronics. He speculated that the increasing number of historical crime novels now being written are a result of a disaffection with the current scene in general and a disinclination to deal with the technical aspects of computers, cell phones, and forensic science in particular. (Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, voiced similar concerns in a recent article in the Washington Post.)

Taylor stated that as time goes on, writing gets harder rather than easier. He added that one of the liabilities of doing extensive research is that the process becomes an end in itself: immensely enjoyable and absorbing as well as providing the perfect excuse to avoid actually having to write! Finally Andrew Taylor enumerated what he believes to be the three qualities of a successful career as an author: hard work, inspiration – and luck.

After his talk, Andrew Taylor signed  books and posed for photos with various members of our group. He was unfailingly gracious.

Our group with Andrew Taylor, in the beautiful dining hall at Speech House


*A more detailed account of the Pace affair can be found in Gloucestershire Murders by Linda Stratmann. (This fascinating book also contains a recounting of a tragic miscarriage of justice that occurred  in Chipping Campden the 17th century. It’s known as the Campden Wonder. Roz Hutchinson amazed us with this strange tale in 2006, when we actually stayed in the lovely Cotswold village of Chipping Campden.)


Last month, I was privileged to be part of a panel discussion at the library. We’d been asked to present book talks on titles of our own choosing. One of the books I chose to recommend was The Anatomy of Ghosts:

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This hijacked my day…

July 10, 2011 at 7:59 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

And my brain…And my life!

But what fun, really…

On his blog At the Villa Rose, Xavier Lechard has posted a video slide show entitled “Murder They Wrote: Women in Crime Fiction From The Nineteenth Century To Now.” It consists of pictures of women who’ve written crime fiction, with each image getting about five seconds of screen time. The writers are not identified by name; that job is left to us, their readers:

So: who are these estimable individuals? Like me, you probably knew some right off the bat, while others tickled the edge of your memory, and still others simply mystified.

I don’t know about you, but their was simply no way I could resist this delicious challenge. And so…

I counted a total forty-six images. On my first run-through, I  identified twenty-three with reasonable (but not absolute) certainty. I then took an educated guess on one image, based on her apparel. I sought to verify my surmise via Google image search and was gratified to find that I was right. There were three other writers that I could think of that I felt reasonably certain were somewhere in this array. I located all three on Google and subsequently on the slide show.

I was also helped by the fact that three of the images have appeared in various posts on Books to the Ceiling.

Should you be interested, you can click here to see my answers. I’ve identified the images according to the time indicated on the scrub bar at the bottom of the video. Do let me know, via  comments on this post, if you spot any errors and/or if you can identify additional authors.

You’ll note that  at the end it says “To Be Continued…” I wonder whether this means there will be more women authors, or whether the next installment will feature men. Either way, one is grateful to Matthieu Esbrat, the creator, and to Xavier Lechard, for placing the video on his blog. Thanks to both of you. More of the same would be most welcome!

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Fascinating Facts about Britain: Offa’s Dyke and the Staffordshire Hoard

July 8, 2011 at 6:22 pm (Anglophilia, To Britain and back 2011)

It began more than three years ago, on a golden evening of high summer. I’d started out from Knighton that morning on what was projected to be  a six-day tramp along the southern half of Offa’s Dyke.

These are the opening sentences of Borrowed Time, a novel by one of my favorite authors of psychological suspense, Robert Goddard.    I read this book shortly after it came out in 2006; at the time, I had no clear idea of just what Offa’s Dyke was.

Here is the definition and description provided on the Offa’s Dyke Association site:

Offa’s Dyke is a linear earthwork which roughly follows the Welsh/English boundary. It consists of a ditch and rampart constructed with the ditch on the Welsh-facing side, and appears to have been carefully aligned to present an open view into Wales from along its length.

The author speculates that the dyke must have been about 27 meters [approximately 88 feet] wide and 7 meters [approximately 23  feet]  from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the earthen bank. He adds: “The origins of the Dyke are shrouded in mystery so that many of its aspects are speculated upon rather than being fully understood.”

And who, pray tell, was this Offa personage, he of Dyke fame? Offa was the King of Mercia from 757 to 796.  Well, that explains it, doesn’t it..? Mercia was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, located in what is now called the Midlands. Here’s how Britain looked at  the time of Offa’s death: 


Since our sojourn was taking us along the Welsh borders, it was inevitable that we would pass close to the Dyke, which is now a popular walking path.   In fact, by the look of this map, we passed very close to it in two places: Monmouth and Hay-on-Wye. And yet we never actually saw it – or I didn’t, at any rate.

Pam offered us an altogether more irreverent and less scholarly, if more succinct, definition of the Dyke: “a hill in England and a ditch in Wales.” Beneath those words, scribbled in the midst of a rather bumpy bus ride, I can barely make out the following: “Devil and gander made Dyke.” What…? A website for the Teme Valley recounts the legendary claim that “…the dyke is just a deep furrow ploughed in the night by the devil using a plough pulled by a gander and a turkey cock!” (I found this bit of lore repeated on a number of sites dealing with the Dyke.)

The National Trails site offers these fascinating facts about the ground traversed by the Offa’s Dyke Path:

In its 177 miles / 285 kilometres it passes through no less than eight different counties and crosses the border between England and Wales over 20 times. The Trail explores the tranquil Marches (as the border region is known) and passes through the Brecon Beacons National Park on the spectacular Hatterall Ridge. In addition it links no less than three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Wye Valley, the Shropshire Hills and the Clwydian Hills.


A major event concerning the history of the Kingdom of Mercia occurred in July of 2009 with the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard. It’s the largest trove of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found – and it was found by one Terry Herbert, an ordinary bloke who enjoyed poking around in farmers’ fields with a metal detector, a tool  purchased at a car boot sale for two pounds fifty (about four dollars). Mr. Herbert was 55 and unemployed at the time he quite literally struck gold. Judging by this piece from the March 23 2010 edition of the Sunday Times, his money worries are well and truly behind him.

Here are some of the prize finds from the Staffordshire Hoard:

Pectoral cross

Zoomorphic mount

Helmet cheek piece

Stylised sea horse

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Fascinating facts about Britain: the River Severn

July 5, 2011 at 10:50 pm (Anglophilia, To Britain and back 2011)

What’s the difference between the River Severn and the Severn River? The first, also known as “the King’s highway,”  is in Britain. The second is Right Here in Maryland! One county over, to be precise. The American Severn is fourteen miles in length, with headwaters in western Anne Arundel County.  Ultimately it empties into the Chesapeake Bay at Annapolis, capital of the Free State and home to the United States Naval Academy.

[Click to enlarge]


With a length of  220 miles, the River Severn is the longest river in Great Britain.  Originating in Wales, it meanders through the Cambrian Mountains of that country and then goes on to Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire, finally emptying its waters into the Bristol Channel.

The River Severn is the dark blue line

As the bus bore us away from the Wye Valley and towards Bristol, our guide Pam informed us that we were following the course of the Severn. This river carries with it a rich store of myth. The best known story is probably  that of the nymph Sabrina, who drowned in the waters of the Severn, to be subsequently reborn and incarnated as “the tutelary goddess of the river.” (Click here for more on the mythology of the Severn.)

The Severn in Shrewsbury, taken from Shrewsbury Castle (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Finally Pam told us about the Severn Bore. This is not, she assured us, a person! As defined by Wikipedia, a tidal  bore is a “…tidal phenomenon in which the leading edge of the incoming tide forms a wave (or waves) of water that travel up a river or narrow bay against the direction of the river or bay’s current.” The result of this collision of contrary forces is a rolling wave that advances along the river. It is similar to a tsunami but on a smaller scale and in a more confined area, specifically on a river as opposed to an ocean.

Surfing the bore is a popular activity. Here’s an excellent video of the bore as it advanced along the Severn in March of last year. The music – The Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner – is exactly apt! And you’ll see that there are modes other than surfing that allow one to take part in this exhilarating experience:

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Phil Rickman calls on us on our first evening in Ross

July 4, 2011 at 6:53 pm (books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

In the depths of the English countryside, a place hard to find in guidebooks and hard to pinpoint on a map, we encountered a rockin’ night out with the local teenagers!

  There we were on our first night at The Chase, a (presumably) staid English country house hotel in the town of Ross on Wye, when a high school prom got underway on the grounds of the establishment. The event went forward with the riotous exuberance that typifies such occasions. In addition, another fairly large and noisy party was making use of  the adjacent bar area. The place was jumping.

It was against this somewhat distracting backdrop that Phil Rickman came to speak to our group. Rickman is the creator of a unique and intriguing protagonist: Merrily Watkins. Merrily is a deliverance consultant for the Church of England. In former times, she would have been called an exorcist. Whatever it is called, it’s a post she’s assumed with some reluctance. It’s bad enough having to fight in the first place for credibility as a female minister. Add to that her dealings with situations that seem to involve the paranormal and the supernatural, and Merrily’s status as a serious professional is questioned even further. It is not, however, the skepticism of others that is her chief difficulty: rather, it’s her  own doubt and uncertainty that are the real problem.

In the course of writing the novels in this series, Phil Rickman has spoken to a number of actual deliverance consultants. He tells some fascinating tales gleaned from these interviews, though he is invariably discreet with regard to their source. He himself is persuasive when it comes to paranormal – or at least, putatively paranormal – phenomena. He is well acquainted with the ghosts haunting the Welsh borders, and with the true crimes that have happened there as well.

From left to right: Valerie, a member of our group; Pam, our superb Blue Badge Guide, Kathy Ackley, who put the excursion together; Nicky, the tour manager (and also a Blue Badge Guide); and Phil Rickman

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