Stuart Neville's debut novel The Ghosts of Belfast will be published in
the USA by Soho Crime in October 2009. He will embark on a six city
American tour beginning mid October, so check www.GhostsOfBelfast.com for an
appearance near you.
Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis:
Many a fan of cinematic crime will be familiar with Get Carter, the grim and
gritty Michael Caine vehicle first released in 1971. Jack Carter, the
brutal gangland thug, is perhaps Caine's most iconic role, and the movie is
widely regarded as one of the greatest ever to emerge from Britain. Fewer
will be acquainted with the novel that inspired the film, Jack's Return Home
by Ted Lewis, first published the year before.
While the adaptation by director Mike Hodges takes some liberties with the source, like relocating the action to Newcastle rather than the Doncaster area, it remains true in spirit to Lewis's classic tale of a mob enforcer who travels from London to his home town in the northeast of England to attend his brother's funeral. When he begins to suspect that his brother's
death was not an accident, things get ugly. Very ugly.
I'd been a fan of the movie for years, and when I finally found a copy of the original novel I couldn't wait to immerse myself in this glorious murk. A few pages in, however, and I was a little taken aback. While I was not yet a writer myself, I had dabbled, and had some sense of prose style. Ted Lewis's way with words was, shall we say, distinctive. The language was
angular, lumpen, sometimes awkward in its phrasing, often ungainly as sentences ran on and on, losing shape as they went. But there was something compulsive about the first person narrative; like a car crash, you couldn't look away.
When the violence came, this seemingly clumsy prose took on the shape of the cruelty it described. The act of inflicting injury on another human being became as ugly in print as it is in real life. And that's when it clicked. Ted Lewis's words were planted so firmly in the mind of the ruthless killer through whose eyes we saw this world that everything was filtered through
his perception. The descriptions of the urban landscape, and the people inhabiting it, were hard and unyielding because that was how the protagonist saw it. Soon the jagged sentences and bludgeoning violence took on a kind of brutal poetry as the author dragged me down with him into Carter's own private hell. It's a reading experience I'll never forget, and one that has
profoundly influenced my own writing.
It's a great shame that Ted Lewis's work is now largely forgotten. He was a brilliant crime writer and stylist comparable to the best of American authors, like James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke. He created the British school of noir fiction with a string of novels in the 1970s that still stand up today, if you can find them. Billy Rags is a particularly good read, and the two Carter prequels, Jack Carter's Law, and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon, are interesting curiosities for fans of the original, even if they do rather smack of cashing in. If not for his death at the age of 42, Ted Lewis may have become the greatest British crime writer of
his generation. Now we'll never know.
Jennie Bentley is the author of the bestselling Do-It-Yourself Home Renovation mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime. She has been compared to Elizabeth Peters, Janet Evanovich, and—believe it or not—Agatha Christie, but never to Quentin Patrick, which seems rather a shame.
SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, Quentin Patrick
I grew up in Norway, which, as everyone knows, is part of Scandinavia. My mother was a big reader, and there were always books around the house. She was my introduction to classics like “Rebecca,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “Sweet Thursday,” all of which (and many more) she’d gotten from a book club she was a member of. I read them in Norwegian, of course. I can still see the leather bindings side by side on the shelf: black and taupe and green, with shiny metallic letters and stripes across the spine on the top and the bottom.
My favorite book club book was called “Piken og Døden,” which translates to “Death and the Maiden.” Backwards. It was originally written in 1939, by an American writer called Quentin Patrick, one of Scandinavia’s most beloved classic crime authors.
Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but Quentin Patrick is one of several pseudonyms for Richard Wilson Webb, who started writing crime novels in 1931 with Martha Mott Kelly. When Miss Kelly got married, Webb teamed up with Mary Louise Atwell for a few years, until he found his permanent writing partner in Hugh Wheeler. Their collaboration started in 1936, and for thirty years, they wrote as Quentin Patrick, Patrick Quentin, and Jonathan Stagge. At one time a relatively well-known crime ‘writer,’ Q Patrick has fallen into obscurity on this side of the Atlantic, and it’s a real shame, because many of the books are wonderful.
Much as I enjoy “Death and the Maiden,” it’s not my favorite Quentin Patrick book. That honor goes to “Suspicious Circumstances,” first published in 1957. I’m not sure why, exactly, because there’s nothing at all wrong with “Death and the Maiden.” Could be that “Suspicious Circumstances” is just damned funny, and I enjoy comedy. Could be because at that age I wanted to be a movie actress, and that’s the background for the story. Or maybe it’s just that the protagonist and narrator isn’t much older than I was when I first read it.
I was in Paris when Norma Delaney died. I had decided to write a novel, and when I told mother, she said, “A novel, my boy? Nineteen years old. Well, why not? Young eyes see everything so clearly. Go to Paris, Nickie. That’s where the best books are written.”
Two days later, Nickie is settled in Paris, in an apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens borrowed from one of his mother’s countless friends, and the next week he’s introduced to Monique at the Café Flore. And somehow the book goes on the back-burner while Nickie enjoys being nineteen and in love. But when he sees a headline saying that over-the-hill screen goddess Norma Delaney has plunged to her death in her Beverly Hills palace, Nickie fears the worst. Norma’s husband, film producer Ronnie Light, has just cast his wife in the role of the century, a blockbuster movie about French courtesan Ninon de Lenclos, an opportunity that every aging actress in Hollywood would happily kill for. Now that Norma is dead, surely Ronnie is looking for another actress to play Ninon. And who better than...?
“I can see it now,” I said. “Mother in the biggest wig since Norma Shearer played Marie Antoinette. Did Ninon de Lenclos yodel? Mother can yodel, too.”
Sarcasm notwithstanding, Nickie gets on the first plane back to Beverly Hills, and gets tangled up in a mystery ranging from California to Las Vegas and back to France, involving Anny and Ronnie, over-the-hill screen goddess Sylvia La Mann, who’s also angling for the role of Ninon; mobster Steve Adriano, who ‘owns’ Las Vegas; the secretary’s secretary, Delight Schmidt, who just happens to be a California redhead, one of Nickie’s self-professed weaknesses; and of course Frenchman Roger Renard, who was there “when Anny did it...”
It’s a wild ride of show business and dead bodies, with a couple of neat twists toward the end that I didn’t see coming, at least not at fourteen or fifteen. By now, I’ve read this book so many times that I can’t tell you whether that might have been different had I read it later in life. I think probably not.
Quentin Patrick’s books are mostly out of print these days, but they’re in libraries up and down the country—interlibrary loan is a wonderful resource if your local library doesn’t have a book you want—and you can also find copies on used book sites like Abe’s Books and possibly even on the shelves of your local used bookstore. If you happen to come across one, snatch it up. If you don’t like it, I’ll be happy to take it off your hands!
Elizabeth Spann Craig is the author of the recent Midnight Ink release, Pretty is as Pretty Dies and the upcoming Memphis Barbeque series for Berkley Prime Crime (May 2010.)
She’s the mother of two and currently lives in Matthews, North Carolina. Between juggling room mom duties, refereeing play dates, and being dragged along as chaperone/hostage on field trips, she dreams of dark and stormy nights beside stacks of intriguing mysteries with excellent opening lines.
Some Must Watch (also known as The Spiral Staircase) by Ethel Lina White, 1933
A dark and stormy night. A ruthless killer who preys on young girls. A lonely country estate far from its nearest neighbor. It sounds, maybe, more like a plot for a scary movie. This could explain why Some Must Watch or The Spiral Staircase was made into a movie in 1946 starring Ethel Barrymore (and remade in 1975 starring Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Plummer. It was remade once more in 2000 as a television movie.) Alfred Hitchcock was also a fan of White’s work and adapted her 1938 book, The Wheel Spins, into his film, The Lady Vanishes.
White writes with great humor as she breathes life into her unusual collection of characters, which include a dried-up professor with an old maid sister, the professor’s son--insanely jealous of an affair he suspects his lascivious wife is having with the professor’s live-in pupil, two resident servants, and the professor’s wicked step-mother—Lady Warren-- who is bedridden but who may be more mobile than they all believe. White’s introduction of the step-mother: “She was the terror of the household; only yesterday, she had flung a basin of gruel at her nurse's head.” There’s also a very masculine nurse employed to keep Lady Warren in line.
The protagonist is Helen Capel who is working as a “lady help” in the household. Helen is spunky and smart, but young and possible naïve. A sense of foreboding is quickly established as various characters warn Helen to watch her back as a vicious killer roams the countryside. The weather and the remote setting combine to lend a lonely, frightening feel to the book.
The house itself is full of passages….some lit, some not. There are several staircases, a cellar, and lots of places for someone to hide. White’s descriptions are quick and punchy, the book fast-paced, and there’s both humor and fright, which she handles equally well. There are nine people in the house—at first. They’re locked inside. Not all of them may be what they seem. White builds the tension with breezy skill as she exposes her characters to a terrifying night trapped indoors with a murderer.
Ed Gorman is the author of THE MIDNIGHT ROOM, SLEEPING DOGS and the editor of forthcoming anthology BETWEEN THE DARK AND THE DAYLIGHT. Find him here
The Man With The Iron-On Badge Lee Goldberg
The Man With The Iron-On Badge isn't Forgotten, it's just been neglected because so far the only edition has been a small hardcover printing with a large print version coming soon after. This is a book that deserves a trade paperback. With all the small presses so active I'm surprised that it isn't available in a new edition.
Iron-On is a book that will keep you laughing and smiling all the way through. If you have any affection for the private eye novel, this book should be required reading because in addition to gently spoofing the form it is a story so rich in character and story twists it's truly masterful.
Say you were a lonely and somewhat overweight security guard who works the night shift at an exclusive gated community. Say that your idea of dining out was Denny's. Say that the only girl who'll have sex with you--and then only occasionally--always makes it clear that she's looking for somebody a whole lot better than you. Say that your fantasy life springs from all the private novels and TV shows you spend time with in your apartment. And say that suddenly Cyril Parkus who lives in the gated community gives you a chance to perform one of the classic jobs of a real private eye--following his beautiful wife.
This is the life of Harvey Mapes, one of my all-time favorite characters in private eye fiction. Of course Harvey takes the job and the money. Of course Harvey enjoys following a woman as beautiful and worldly as Lauren. Of course Harvey has thoughts of finally getting his life in order.
But fate--or somebody--has different ideas for Harvey.
The novel is seeded with references to private eye shows and novels. In addition it gives us a realistic look at the trapped lives of millions of working Americans who live just above the poverty line. And it also goes the standard Los Angeles crime novel one better by taking us places and showing us people we don't usually see in the LA novel.
But more than the comedy, the beautifully designed plot and the snapshots of La La Land--more than any other element in the book, it's Harvey's voice you'll remember. There's a workaday universality to it that gives the novel its wit and insight and truth.
Before a publisher comes to his senses and reprints Lee Goldberg's fine novel, you can find inexpensive copies on on line.
Some other forgotten books.Martin Edwards