There are those who say that crime fiction is not as popular as it was, and that it largely caters for a readership who (dare we say it ?) are not as young as they were.
I must admit that last time I went to a crime fiction event there was a preponderance of grey hair and sensible sweaters. I also have to admit that while I tend to think of myself as some one who`s still quite young, a quick glance in the mirror shows that this is not actually the case !
Having said that, I`m not so sure that crime fiction is in terminal decline. Since I`ve expanded the scope of this blog to encompass a wider variety of material, I`ve been struck by how many different permutations on the theme of crime writing there are ; historical, contemporary and golden age crime fiction are just three of the varieties that spring to mind.
A newcomer to the field is W.W. Morgan, whose third novel The Assassin`s Wedding is out now.
Needles to say, I am giving this Nottingham lad a plug partly to encourage an unknown writer, partly because he is based in the city of my birth and partly because we have a copy of his book to sell !
Our copy of this worthy tome is at 5352 in our listings and can be ordered in the usual way. If you`d like to know more about this writer, an interview can be found by clicking here ;
It`s quite a time since I first began to review Obverse Publications` Zenith Lives ! collection, but finally, here we are again.
George Mann - The Albino`s Shadow (Short Story) I`ve never read anything by George Mann before but I`ll admit I`m keen to try more of his stuff.
I was particularly impressed by the author`s writing style. Somehow, he manages to keep the thing moving at quite a sprightly pace but still introduces enough detail - about a given character`s mannerisms etc - to make it convincing ("Rutherford blew smoke from the corner of his mouth, watching as it was quickly dispersed on the frigid breeze").
I also like the way one is quite quickly drawn into the little world the author has created, particularly during a visit to the home of the character Professor Angelchrist ("Rutherford had a sense that the house was crowded with the accumulated detritus of decades, paraphernalia of a thousand long-forgotten adventures. He longed to explore, to go rummaging and digging amongst all this wondrous stuff, to unpick the tales attached to each item").
I don`t want to say anything too much about the plot, except to remark that the story involves very little action, but still holds the reader`s attention, something I found admirable.
For me, the ending worked perfectly, though I can see that others may not agree.
I have a fondness for the short story as a genre which obviously means I`ve read some of the very best (H G Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and some of the worst (I won`t name names !). Whether this miniature gem of a story stands up amongst the best only time will tell, but it`s a long, long way from being one of the worst.
It`s different, but give it a try. You might like it.
As you may have noticed, I`ve taken to punctuating my online journeys into the world of Sexton Blake with short pieces of news, comment etc to do with crime-writing generally. My spies tell me that author Karen Maitland made an appearance at the library in Arnold, Nottinghamshire recently, to speak to a local reading group, an appearance that by all accounts has made a few more converts to her literary cause. Ms Maitland is a new name to me, but a spot of googling reveals that she is the author of seven novels, all published by big-name publishers (Penguin and Simon and Schuster). Her choice of venue seems a little surprising given that she is, seemingly, quite a big name and does not live in Notts. Myths, magic and medieval murder mysteries are Maitland`s thing. She writes these individually and also jointly with a group of writers known as the Medieval Murderers (the others are Philip Gooden, Susanna Gregory, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight and Ian Morson). I seem to recall reading that a group of Sexton Blake writers did something similar in days gone by. If you missed her trip to the Midlands then don`t despair as she will be hitting the road, Jack, quite a bit in the near future, including return visits to Notts later this month and in October. For more information on her doings and goings-on, click here ; http://www.karenmaitland.com/news-and-events.
Arthur Kent - Inclining to Crime - Amalgamated Press - Sexton Blake Library - Series 4, Issue 364, 1956
Not a bad effort from one of the lesser-known SBL writers.
As far as I know Arthur Kent was his real name, though he may have used pen-names at times. If anyone can clarify this I`d be glad to hear from you. Allegedly he typed his own stories despite having only one arm !
Blake is retained by the marvellously named New Hope and Trust Insurance Company to investigate a series of suspicious fires but soon realises his suspects are involved in much more than fraud.
By this time, the series was absorbing influences from `the other side of the pond`, so we encounter an array of characters influenced by US detective fiction - an Italian gangster, a drug addict, a crooked boxing promoter. Criminals you might well meet in earlier Blakes, but probably not all in the same story.
In Kent`s hands they do not seem like beings from another genre grafted on to an SBL format, their presence seems reasonably natural, except for their extraordinary taste in clothes. Gangster Don Ricardo wears a sky-blue tuxedo to a boxing match at one point, which must surely be an offence in itself !
In a nice touch, the debt to US pulp fiction is explained away by personal vanity - Ricardo has changed his name from Luigi to Don as he rose through the ranks of the underworld, junky Michael Banion`s use of American slang is an affectation.
The story manages to pack insurance fraud, a rigged boxing match and a number of murders into the stipulated 64 pages, which is no mean feat. The pace of the thing alone is enough to keep the attention, but there is little to raise it from `good` to `great`. The odd classy phrase ("Daylight chased shadows from the empty hall") or piece of wry humour ("When I was a recruit" comments a detective "it was enough that you gave your superiors the facts. Now they want to give you their personal opinions.") only really offset the occasional amateurish touches and incongruities (at one point a character refers to the killing of a man with a pick "a clean job" !).
There is a nifty plot twist towards the end, and generally the latter part does seem a little more ingenious than the rest.
I wouldn`t call it inspired, but I would call this a creditable effort from our man Kent and overall it`s worth a read.
After our sale in July we entered into an arrangement with ABE whereby those of our books that had been discounted as part of the sale remained at the sale price, but new titles added subsequently went online at their full price. In light of the difficult times we are all living in, we`ve decided to leave that arrangement in place a little longer - all the items we have in stock that were reduced as part of the July sale will continue to be discounted until 15 Sept 2012. Whether you`re planning some early Christmas shopping, looking for something to read for pleasure or pursuing a hobby or other leisure interest, this is your chance to pick up a bargain or two from our splendid stock of literary loveliness. Remember our slogan - Respect the Book !
I`m grateful to Ross Bradshaw of Nottingham`s Five Leaves publishing company for providing details of another crime writing event, this one being at Waterstones, Edinburgh West End on Thurs 6 Sep 2012 ;
Should you wish to spend your leisure time in the company of people who spend much of their waking hours dreaming up new and ingenious ways in which people might do away with each other, and speculating about the motives which might drive them to do so, then this link may be of interest ;
Somewhat belatedly ; here`s a little something that may be of interest to admirers of the excellent Mr Blake ; Steve Holland - `Sexton Blake Annual 1928, posted 23 Aug 2012 at http://bearalleybooks.blogspot.com .
Another month is upon us and now seems a good time to look at our more recently acquired dollops of crimeand punishment.
At 5191 we have Alexander McGregor`s The Law Killers, a collection of true crime stories from |Dundee. Journalist-turned-author Alexander turns his hand to both fiction and fact, as anyone familiar with his novel Lawless can confirm. Most true crime collections with a local/regional slant have a relatively limited market, particularly when they are published by a small, independent publisher. A shame really, as they`re often very good. The Law Killers was the exception that proved the rule as it was a great success, probably the result of Mr McG`s appearances on TV crime documentaries.
Linda Regan is an actress and author (www.lindareganonline.co.uk) who has the good fortune to be published by the Chesterfield-based Creme de la Crime publishing house. Copies of her book Behind You can be found at 2959 and 5194 in our listings.
These are only a couple of the crime titles we have in stock at present, chosen partly because they are relatively recent acquisitions and partly because they are inexpensive, given the current economic climate.
Whether you`re looking for collectable crime or have a liking for bloodshed at bargain basement prices, just remember, Hoonaloon`s our name and crime is our game !" *
All the Best,
Nick and Ann-Marie Hoonaloon Books
* As are history, mythology, antiquarian fiction and much else, but whilst writing this I went into `50s b-movie mode and felt I should "be like an alligator and make it snappy".
I`ll be returning to the world of Sexton Blake very soon but in the meantime I`d like to give a shameless plug to the Undershaw Preservation Trust.
The UPT is a body devoted to preserving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle`s former home Undershaw (Hindhead, Surrey) and hopefully to finding a new purpose for this sadly-neglected building, possibly as some sort of Doyle/Holmes museum.
There`s no real need for any further explanation from me, as the Trust is well able to speak for itself.
Bargain hunters amongst you may wish to know that the latest Hoonaloon Books sale is already underway and runs from 1 July 2012 - 27 July 2012.
During the sale, all the items we have for sale via ABE - around 4,000 titles - are discounted by 25%. The discount has already been applied so all you have to do is make your choices and place your order.
The delights we have on offer are many and varied, so why not enter the metaphorical portals of the Hoonaloon online emporium and examine the many treasures to be found therein ?
Stuart Douglas and others - Zenith Lives - Obverse Books - 2012
As explained previously, this is not a Sexton Blake book as such, but a collection of contemporary short stories featuring the character of Monsieur Zenith (Zenith the Albino), one of Blake`s pre-war adversaries.
The enigmatic Zenith was created by writer Anthony Skene but in these stories he lives again even though his creator is long since under the ground.
I`ve decided to review each story individually. As this may be a touch time-consuming, and knowing that people tend to have a short attention span I`ve decided to post the review in instalments. This posting contains my review of the first two stories in the collection, and my thoughts on the rest will follow in due course.
Mark Hodder - The Blood of our Land
The Blood of our Land is an absolute gem (as the plot concerns itself with a group of precious stones that have a particular significance, I should stress that the pun is entirely unintentional !). In the earlier parts particularly the writer creates almost an illusion of realism in the way character`s movements are observed ( "He reached into his velvet jacket and pulled out a flat platinum case, took from it a small hand-rolled cigarette, then produced a box of matches and struck one.") and this is very effective.
Towards the end we are in serious `big showdown` territory. Something more restrained might have been at least as effective, but let`s not quibble. The ingenious plot twists and the quality of the writing make this an excellent tale.
Paul Magrs - All the Many Rooms
This is not really my bag of chips but I gave it my best shot. There seems to be more than a hint of a William Burroughs influence here. That style of writing can be strangely evocative ("I arrived late, not because I was keen to seem fashionable or blase, but because I was tied up with some important papers and shapes of things, blurred as more snow fell in tireless shifts"), it can be intriguing ("I nodded to the doorman, snug in his den behind the window, and scurried up secret stairs"). It is certainly not predictable. Mr M introduces some welcome touches of humour (the guest list at a party includes "Ziggy and Alvin Stardust") . Against that, the reader is dropped into an unfamilar literary landscape with no signposts or explanations and as the piece goes on the danger is that the reader will too readily dismiss it as an intellectual`s game, a riddle with no solution other than that the reader provides for themselves. It`s not for everybody but those who like it will love it.
On a purely personal note, and it makes no sense at all really, for me this piece brought back memories of working away from home in younger days, and of a workmate who unfortunately died not so long ago. I think it was "blurred as more snow fell in tireless shifts" and "I nodded to the doorman, snug in his den behind the window." . Funny the way a few words can reverberate in a way the author can never have anticipated or intended.
As I`ve explained above, these are only the first two stories in the colection, and I`ll be reviewing the others in the very near future.
"Arrayed in full evening dress and habitually smoking his opium-laced cigarettes, Zenith repeatedly outwits the Police by doing what no sane man would dare. Such considerations as death have no influence on his conduct. What is life to him that he should fear to lose it ?
Yet, though an ambitious criminal, the albino has a strict code of conduct. Zenith`s honour, which would allow him to steal or even, upon occasion, to kill, would not permit treachery. His word is his bond and so, strangely, there are times when he can be trusted."
Mark Hodder, Blakiana
"The way I look at it is that I want to read more stories featuring the life of Zenith and nobody else was publishing them."
Stuart Douglas, Obverse Books
Regular visitors to this blog will no doubt have noticed my distinct preference for post-war Blake stories. Taken as a whole, the earlier Blake stories are just not my bag. Still I am not such a philistine as to assume there are no high points in the Blake saga pre-WW2. I`ve been impressed by the few works of Pierre Quiroule (W W Sayer) that I`ve read, and who could fail to be intrigued by the complex gothic anti-hero, Monsieur Zenith (Zenith the Albino) ?
We are fortunate that this enigmatic villain has not been consigned to the grave along with his creator (writer Anthony Skene if I recall correctly), but has in fact experienced a literary re-incarnation in a new collection of short stories from those nice people at Obverse Books, the aptly-named Zenith Lives.
A review of their book will be appearing on this blog very soon, but as it is already available, if anyone wants a copy and doesn`t feel the need to wait to see what I think about it (which would be entirely understandable), then it can be ordered from Obverse via their website.
Trivia ; This was the first SBL to carry the distinctive red stripe along the left-hand side. In this instance, `Peter Saxon` was SBL editor W Howard Baker, though I believe that Peter Saxon was a `house pseudonym` used by a number of different writers. As ever, I`m indebted to the Blakiana website for this information, but any mistakes/misunderstandings are my own.
W Howard Baker had been SBL editor for about a yearwhen he penned this tale under the pseudonym Peter Saxon.
Very different in style to his classy Walk in Fear, this is a classic tale of plucky chaps doing daring deeds. Surprisingly for an editor who introduced many changes that older fans did not like, it is actually a very traditional blend of two-fisted action and intelligent detection. It`s none the worse for that !
Set in Angola, at that time occupied by the Portugese, the plot concerns a mysterious gangster known only as Salar, employed by an unscrupulous mining company to sabotage a rivals` operation. Britain`s interests are threatened and Blake is despatched. Africa and the Africans hardly get a look in though, and for the most part it could just as well have been set in Portugal itself.
The fast-paced story never fails to hold the attention, but contains some echoes of the traditional whodunnit. (There are five characters likely to be unmasked as the mysterious Salar. I sailed through the story blissfully convinced that I knew who it was, only to be proved wrong on the next-to-last page ! )
It would be easy (and irresistible !) to poke fun at the odd dated passage ("Her flame-coloured skirt was riding high, and a pair of smoothly-rounded knees were plainly visible." Blimey ! Is it hot in here, or is it me ?), but generally it is a good story told well.
Baker only briefly shows what he is capable of, in a short but effective passage where Blake, his assistant Tinker and a representative of the Portugese Security Services have been keeping observation for hours together one night ;
"They all looked tired, these men : they had talked intermittently since...before nine o`clock, and now they had exhausted the available topics of conversation. So they sat around the table silently, and the passing minutes were translated into tiny lines of strain and fatigue which etched the corners of their eyes."
Blake seems a tolerably rounded figure in Baker`s hands, made more real by his innate decency and sense of humour. The supporting cast of Portugese officials and gangsters are all more interesting than usual. The only excessively cliched character is one of the best, a sadistic thug called Serilla who is given to saying things like "Right, Mister Clever Sexton Blake ! Now you`re going on that long, last walk." An obvious nod to the villains of the pre-war `Golden Age` of Blake adventures.
This may not be Baker at his best, but it`s certainly not Baker at his worst. I personally enjoyed it as much as any Blake story I`ve read.
Earlier this month I was lucky enough to be contacted for the second time by Keith Chapman, a past editor of the Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine who now writes for Hale`s Black Horse Westerns series.
Keith, who in his youth was lucky enough to work for Amalgamated/Fleetway on the Sexton Blake Library series, is a reliable source of fascinating information on so-called `pulp` writers of the past, including Rex Hardinge and Walter Tyrer.
For more information, please see my articles The Cowboy and the Detective (14 January 2011) and The Friends of Walter the Writer (15 January 2012), both of which appear at http://bookshelvesandbrownale.blogspot.com .