‘I opened this book with high expectations. They have been admirably fulfilled.  Here we have a stand alone thriller about two lonely people who pursue a relationship of monthly weekends together in remote spots.  Suddenly one of these two fails to get to the rendezvous-vous and the other realises how very limited her knowledge of her  companion is . . . Gradually the reader pieces together some of the facts as an atmosphere of rising tension envelops everything. The intelligent way Jay, Lisa and others plan their actions is enjoyable and the suspense of the tale is palpable.’


L C Tyler is my guest

Posted on Sep 29, 2014 in Crooked Herring, L. C. Tyler, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Crooked herring cover Of  the sub-genres of crime fiction, I think comedy is the hardest to pull off, but Len Tyler succeeds triumphantly. The Ethelred and Elsie series is one of the very best. It began with The Herring Seller’s Apprentice and the fifth has just come out. I began by asking Len to tell us something about it.

Crooked Herring is case number five for the literary detective duo Ethelred and Elsie. Henry, a friend of crime writer Ethelred Tressider, arrives out of the blue to announce that he thinks he may have killed somebody – he’s just not sure who or when. Ethelred feels that ultraconservative Henry is an unlikely murderer. But worryingly Henry’s companion on a drunken New Year pub crawl, thriller writer Crispin Vynall, has vanished without trace. Ethelred knows Crispin and, more to the point, knows Crispin’s wife, who is surprisingly unconcerned that her husband is missing. Will Ethelred solve the problem of the missing thriller writer? Or will his past catch up with him first? Because there are clearly things that Ethelred has not revealed to anyone else (especially to his agent Elsie) about his relationship with Emma Vynall. As Elsie later helpfully points out to the police: ‘He fancied her rotten. Would you like another biscuit with that coffee, Inspector?’?

How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?

It depends how close I am to a deadline! I may be slaving away early morning to late at night, glued to my desk with just a break for a quick beans on toast. Or I may spend time on all sorts of other things like interviews, with coffee every half an hour. My next deadline is January. Do you fancy a cup? I’m just putting the kettle on.

Love one, thanks, and while it’s brewing, What comes first for you: theme, plot, characters, setting?

For the series I do of course have the main characters already, so they are certainly the starting point – a plus in some ways and a major constraint in others. Then it’s usually an idea – in this case, what if you woke up one morning with a vague idea that the night before you had done something dreadful – you just can’t remember what? Not uncommon after a Crime Writers’ Association summer party, you might say, but Henry ‘s car is covered in mud and he has scratches all over him. Then there’s the length of rope in the boot. At that stage in the writing process I may have only the haziest idea what Henry’s done and how Ethelred will fit into the plot, but I’ll find out shortly. Even if I don’t know, the characters usually do. The first draft tends to be all about getting the plot into place. Descriptions of settings and of minor characters usually come later. So do a lot of the jokes.

Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?

I think I was a writer of humour first and a crime writer second, though now obviously crime is what I do. My early influences were PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Alan Coren and Stephen Leacock. Later Christie, Sayers and Ellis Peters. I don’t write Golden Age pastiche exactly, but the influence is there. Lots of amateur detection and red herrings but not too much blood. And all of the sex is off the page. Recently I’ve read CJ Sansom’s Dominion, Ruth Downie’s Tabula Rasa, Eliza Graham’s The One I Was and Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea – all highly recommended by the way. I read for all sorts of reasons. I’ve always read primarily for enjoyment, and that’s still the main incentive to pick up a book. Having started another series, set in the seventeenth century, I now also read a lot for research. And I read some books out of duty in the sense that you have to keep up with what others are writing in the genre and indeed learn from them. Not that these last two categories can’t be fun as well. I might even work out how to write sex scenes.

A favourite bookshop?

Goldsboro Books in Charing Cross – packed with signed first editions, new and old.

What are you writing now?

Unusually for me, I’m working on two books in parallel – the second in the (John Grey) historical series and the sixth E&E. I’m also writing a chapter for the next Detection Club collaborative novel.

And finally: is Elsie’s client list full? Would she consider being my agent?

If you are happy to put up with a great deal of editorial sarcasm and to keep her supplied with chocolate, then I’m sure she’d take you on.

To find out more about Len and his novels go to


Be afraid . . . be very afraid

Posted on Sep 26, 2014 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

0451205960.01._SL130_SCLZZZZZZZ__Books that have really scared you do tend to stick in the mind. When I was nine or ten I got hold of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’ gave me pause for thought, but ‘The Speckled Band’ frightened me so much that I couldn’t finish the book. I have read them many times since. But I’ve never been able to track down a short story that I read in my twenties that gave me such a real visceral shock that I remember it to this day. I really wanted to read it again and see how the writer did it. Trouble was I couldn’t remember either the name of the author or the name of the story. I remembered the central idea and I thought that the writer was American. I had an idea that it was in an anthology edited by Hugh Greene in the 1970s, The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, but though there are some splendid stories in there, this wasn’t one of them. I concluded that I wasn’t going to be able to track it down. It went on being a niggling little question.

And then, earlier today I was browsing Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by Sue Grafton and came across this in an article about endings by John Lutz: ‘In my short story “The Real Shape of the Coast” written for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the detective, an inmate of an insane asylum, eventually reaches the inescapable conclusion that he himself is the murderer.’ Bingo! It didn’t take long to track down an anthology that contains it, and a copy of A Century of Noir: 32 Classic Stories is winging its way to me from Motor City Books in Detroit.

So I’ll soon find out: will the story still be scary and how did he pulled it off? I’ll let you know.

Is there a story in your past that makes you shiver at the very thought of it?

Should I go on a Book Diet?

imagesBy that I don’t mean should I read fewer books, but should I stop buying them for a while. Should I have a book-free month in the way that some people have an alcohol-free month?

I have an awful lot of books I haven’t read and I am adding to them all the time. There is no doubt that I buy more than I used to. I’m buying ebooks, but it’s as well as, not instead of, print books. A few weeks ago I had a few minutes to spare in town and popped into a charity shop. I came out with a copy of Reginald Hill’s The Woodcutter (recommended by Martin Edwards, ). I also bought a hardback copy of The Saturday Book 3 – one of a run of Saturday Books – from 1943 because, flicking through it, I came across an article by J. Maclaren-Ross (a fascinating figure who inspired the character of X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time). One was £1.50, the other £2.00.  As I wedged them into my already groaning book-shelves, I wondered if it was time to call to halt, go cold turkey on my book-buying habit, and concentrate on working my way through the ones I have got.

I have been toying the idea ever since. But, you know what, I’m not going to. I like buying books. When it’s something written by one of my friends, I don’t want to get it out of the library, I want to buy it and improve their sales figures. When I go into a book shop, I feel it is almost a moral imperative not to go out without buying a book. It’s so important to support them. And then, too, writers can set the purchase of books against tax. That must mean that I’m supposed to be buying books. It’s part of my job. At least that’s what I tell my husband . . .

And what can beat the thrill of the serendipitous purchase? I don’t have so much excitement in my life that I am prepared to forgo this innocent pleasure. Looking at The Saturday Book 3 again, I notice something wonderful that I hadn’t seen before: three short stories by Francis Iles, Anthony Berkeley and A. A. Milne, stalwarts of the Golden Age. Next time I am passing that charity shop I’ll go in and see what’s in the other volumes.

The book that made me cry in the library

Posted on Sep 17, 2014 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

awebbI’m I’m in Birmingham again at the wonderful Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. It’s the time of year that makes me think of new terms and new beginnings and I remembered arriving in Birmingham as a postgrad all those years ago. I had a couple of hours to spare so this afternoon I decided to hop on a bus and visit the Barber Institute where I had worked on my MA.

It was a beautiful autumn day, the campus is attractively leafy (pictured above) and as I walked along I heard a piano and a fine male voice singing what might have been a song by Schubert through an open window. I found the building that had been the Shakespeare Institute, where I had been based. It’s a nineteenth century redbrick villa in its own grounds and is empty now (the Institute moved to Stratford long ago). I peered through the window at dusty floorboards and remembered gruelling tutorials and parties on the lawn. Looking at the garden with its weed-covered pond and statue, I felt like someone in a poem by Hardy, musing on the vagaries of life.

The Barber Institute cheered me up. It truly is a hidden gem. It has a small but breath-taking collection of paintings, prints and bronzes: Degas, Monet, Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, Gainsborough, Reynolds and many more. For most of the time I was the only person there. I guess there are more people around in term-term.

But what about the book that had me crying in the library? On the ground floor is the Art Library where I spent many a day doing research for both my MA and later my Ph.d and where I worked my way through two long volumes of Georgiana Burne-Jones’s Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. It is the only book she wrote and it’s a masterpiece. I was so deeply immersed in their lives and so deeply moved when I reached her account of her husband’s death that tears began to plop on to the polished mahogany table. The librarian – a friend, luckily – came in and wanted to know what on earth was the matter. ‘It’s so sad,’ I managed to tell him. He couldn’t help but be amused. It was the first – and very likely the last – time that he’d found someone sobbing over a book.

Ten books that have stayed with me

A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Daniella, tagged me on Facebook. “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. It is not about the ‘right’ book or great work of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Does not have to be in order.’

I should then have nominated 10 friends to be tagged in turn. I am hopeless at this. By the time I have got round to it, all my friends have already been tagged by someone and there is no-one left to choose.  But I did write my list – pretty much off the top of my head and here it is:

Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Sarah Waters, Fingersmith

Lawrence Block, Out on the Cutting Edge

Taichi Yamada, Strangers

Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did at School

Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon

Susan Varley, Badger’s Parting Gifts

Joyce Dennys, Henrietta’s War

Note that I am not saying these are the best or even my favourite books, just a few that have stayed with me. This list is all fiction. Maybe I’ll do non-fiction another time.

I like a booklist. There’s one on a recent post here: and Moira at has some good lists.

What people are reading on the train

Posted on Sep 9, 2014 in Foyles, Our Man in Havana | 4 Comments

Or. at least, what they were reading on the 17.34 from Victoria to Peckham yesterday. The young man sitting next to me was reading Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. The one opposite was reading Murakawi’s 1Q84. The  young woman who got off the train in front of me was reading a Virago Modern Classic, but I couldn’t see which one. I found all this evidence of serious reading very heartening and it’s very nice to know that people are still reading Greene’s comic masterpiece. These were all actual books.

What was far from heartening was arriving at St Pancras at the week-end to find that Foyle’s had closed. I’ve spend many a happy quarter of an hour in that shop and bought many a book. There’s going to be a branch of John Lewis instead. This is sad news for those of us who regularly arrive at and depart from this station. Now there is only the very limited selection of books available from W. H. Smith. It’s a sad sign of the times, that a station the size of St Pancras International doesn’t support a proper bookshop. .

Sally Spedding is my guest

chiller-thrillerI first met Sally a number of years ago when we did an event together at Heffers in Cambridge. She writes stories that are very, very creepy. Her most recent novel, Malediction, is a noir thriller set in France. Her new book, How to Write a Chiller Thriller, explains some of the secrets of writing supernatural thrillers. I began by asking her about it. Over to Sally:

I was commissioned to write it by Suzanne Ruthven, formerly co-editor of The New Writer (now of Compass Books) because she’d heard about my writing workshops and liked my work. I was fired up by the need to see more brave, original themes within the genre.

How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?

A notebook/tablet on the bedside table is useful to re-connect with the work in progress if the day won’t allow time to actually be in my study. Otherwise, I’m in there from midday and re-surface when cabin fever sets in!

What comes first for you: theme, plot, characters, setting?

Setting, always. If a particular place ‘hits me in the chest,’ I have no choice but to deal with it, and then ask ‘who goes there?’

The supernatural is a recurring element in your stories. Have you ever seen a ghost or had a similar experience?

Yes, many times, otherwise I couldn’t use this not-so hidden aspect of life in my work. On one occasion, in a brand new-build house, an overpowering ‘presence’ tried to suffocate me. I later discovered the development was built on a mediaeval graveyard!

Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?

Pierre Magnan (The Murdered House) Philippe Claudel (Grey Souls) Christophe Dufosse (School’s Out) and the late Friedrich Durrenmatt (The Pledge) Recently loved Nele Neuhaus’ Snow White Must Die.

A favourite bookshop?

The Hours Café in Brecon.

What are you writing now?

Am finishing Footfall (working title) in longhand (so I can draw the characters in the margins!) First in a series with young, wannabe cop, Delphine Rougier, set in a rural backwater near Le Mans. It’s grim…

I’m looking forward to it. You can find out more about Sally and her novels at












A wonderful writer

51W2JVr7sEL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_The summer holidays are nearly over and it’s time to plan a visit to the London Library. Looking at my pile of library books, I realised that I hadn’t got very far into Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them. I’d got distracted and had forgotten about it. I decided it was worth trying again. It’s a favourite book of a very good friend, and anyway, I’m an admirer of Townsend Warner’s short stories..

I don’t usually care much for historical novels. They are so often anachronistic in the way they present their characters’ thoughts. But The Corner That Held Them is an historical novel like no other. It is the story of a Fenlands convent between 1345 and 1382, the time of the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt. The landscape, the weather, the characters of the nuns and their habits of thought are all so vividly realised.  It is full of strange, yet convincing details and similes. Dame Isabel on her deathbed is ‘mute as a candle, visibly consuming away and still not extinguished.’ Of another nun: ‘Her apple-blossom beauty had not been substantiated by the slightest carnal intellect, she was as chaste as a parsnip.’ There isn’t really a plot, and yet one is drawn on and on by her descriptive power.

Sylvia Townsend Warner is one of those writers who seems to come in and out of fashion. I think she is one of great short story writers of the twentieth century. She is clever and funny and so original. I’ve just got her Selected Stories down from the shelf and, dipping in, want to read them all again. For anyone coming new to her, I think that would be the place to start.